Muslim racism and imperialism

Power and exclusion

The outpouring of solidarity worldwide following the violent death of George Floyd should prompt us to step back and fundamentally question racist structures and privileges based on injustice – wherever they exist in the world. An essay by Tayfun Guttstadt

The recent global show of solidarity and sympathy with both the historical and ongoing day-to-day suffering of the Black population in the USA was of a magnitude not seen in a long time. Protests broke out in far-flung areas outside the USA and Europe. Displays of solidarity were particularly marked in the Middle East and in Middle Eastern communities in Europe and the USA, where people also see themselves as being victims of racism at the hands of northern Whites, as historically oppressed peoples who are now crying out for justice with the same vehemence and rage as the Blacks.

Foremost among them are Kurds and Palestinians, who have not shrunk from drawing parallels between their own cause and the struggle of Blacks in the USA – mostly claiming that they suffer in equal measure. But it is not only Kurds and Palestinians that feel this way; most people in the Middle East feel that Blacks are not the only victims of racism. This may be true to a certain extent, but it has the effect of distracting from a very real problem: racism within their own communities.

A centuries-long tradition of slavery

For nearly a millennium, Muslims from the Middle East dominated the Mediterranean region and large stretches of Africa and Asia. During that time, they enslaved millions of people, not only but mainly people with black skin. Those sold at slave markets to be shipped all over the world came predominantly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Their enslavement was in line with existing laws that were mostly written and adopted by the ancestors of today's Kurds, Turks and Arabs.

Black people were enslaved as servants, workers and soldiers, with no consideration for their lives, health or state of mind. Black men were often castrated to make them suitable as guards or servants in harems or affluent households.

To this day, Blacks are still at the bottom of the social hierarchy – they are demeaned, have fewer job opportunities, are jokingly referred to as "slaves" or eunuchs, and in times of social unrest such as the Arab Spring, they are often the target of physical violence.

Although slavery has been officially abolished in almost all countries of the Middle East, structural inequalities persist – just as they do in the USA and Europe – preventing Blacks from participating in social life and accumulating wealth. Blacks are almost never seen in leadership positions or on television, and non-Black parents do not want their children to marry Blacks.

Illustration dating from 1878 depicting a slave market in Zanzibar (picture: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Walsh)
Illustration dating from 1878 depicting a slave market in Zanzibar. Starting in the seventeenth century, the slave trade boomed in East Africa. Around this time, a growing number of traders from Oman settled in Zanzibar, as a result of which the islands of the Zanzibar Archipelago began to play an increasingly important role in the international trade in both goods and slaves. The slave market there became the largest in East Africa

Bilal: the token Black in Muslim historiography

By highlighting individual Blacks who played important roles in the early days of Islam or in the Ottoman Army, possibly even gaining a degree of renown, all this is meant to be forgotten. But it doesn't stop there: the history of Islam is also "whitewashed" or "brownwashed". Just as northern Christians imagine Jesus as a curly-haired blond youth with snow-white skin – a thoroughly implausible notion – early Muslims are all pictured as Arabs, except for Bilal, who is more or less the token Black in Islamic historiography. One of the first converts, Bilal's beautiful voice brought him fame as a muezzin and he has ever after been put forth as the shining example of the supposedly unchanging egalitarianism of Islam.

In some African countries, the oppression and exploitation of the Black population by Muslims has been a subject of intense debate for a long time. According to some activists, the Muslim conquest was every bit as devastating for Africa as European colonialism, if not more so. Nevertheless, the point of this article is not to compare and contrast these historically and structurally very disparate phenomena.

The point instead is to acknowledge the complexity of human history and the omnipresence of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Even before European imperialism, the world was by no means free of claims to superiority or exclusion and hatred on the basis of skin colour, religion, language or origin.

If we understand racism as an instrument of power, it is reasonable to say that Muslims – until relatively recently one of the world's most dominant economical, military and cultural groups – made similar use of exclusionary mechanisms to legitimise their privileged status, just as the Western Europeans would do hundreds of years later. Racism as a (pseudo)-science may be an invention of the European Age of Science, but the division of a population according to criteria such as skin colour, ethnicity or religion, with status and rights granted accordingly, has unfortunately existed since time immemorial. 

It is also important to remember the extent to which the legacy of Arab-Islamic, Persian, Seljuk and Ottoman imperialism still shapes our world even today.

That Arabic is the lingua franca from the Gulf to Gibraltar certainly has nothing to do with its being particularly easy to learn. Similar to French and English, it has prevailed as a result of economic, political and military pressure – both direct and indirect.

An Islamic miniature depicting Bilal giving the call to prayer (Source: Wikipedia)
An Islamic miniature depicting Bilal giving the call to prayer. One of the first converts to Islam, Bilal ibn Rabah reputedly had a beautiful voice that brought him fame as a muezzin. According to Tayfun Guttstadt, he has "ever after been put forth as the shining example of the supposedly unchanging egalitarianism of Islam"

Numerous cultures and languages were suppressed, repressed or even deliberately destroyed by Arab, Persian and Turkish imperialism. The fact that Islam is the dominant religion from Morocco to Mongolia has reasons that are more than just theological. Jews, Armenians, Greeks and numerous other peoples saw themselves reduced to minorities in their historical homelands.

Besides conversions to Islam out of conviction, there were also forced conversions and those undertaken out of opportunism. After all, key areas of social life were reserved for Muslims only, and conversion to the religion of the ruling class could open up undreamt-of possibilities.

Combined with other factors such as occasional riots and massacres of minorities, war-time devastation, and political and economic pressure, non-Muslim life was slowly but surely wiped out. Most regions of the Middle East have scarcely any minorities in their populations today – the exodus of Middle Eastern Christians, for example, continues to this day.

The consequences of Arab, Turkish and Persian imperialism

Underscoring these historical conditions is certainly not meant to downplay the atrocities committed by Europeans, but rather to point out that the consequences of Arab, Turkish and Persian imperialism are still in clear evidence today in the political, economic and military power held by these peoples and their nation-states. Minorities such as the Amazigh, the Berbers and the Kurds, for example, have hardly any opportunities to advocate for their own interests – even though some individuals have been able to assume prominent positions in society through assimilation.

Nevertheless, Kurds and Palestinians do benefit in some ways from the general Muslim dominance in the Middle East. Their main problem is their statelessness, which emerged over the past one hundred years. Before the creation of nation-states, they belonged to the privileged Muslim majority, regardless of their economic status.

In the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or more precisely in the reactions to it, an imperial legacy is making itself felt on the Arab side. This is certainly not an attempt to make light of the crimes perpetrated by the extraordinarily well-equipped Israeli army or the massacres of civilians during the founding of the state. And yet, the general rejection of a Jewish state not only by the Arabs but by almost all Muslims reveals nothing less than a privileged view of the conflict.

The fact that in the age of the nation-state even the Jews would claim a state for themselves is seen as impudence. This attitude shows a complete lack of awareness of how Jews in the Middle East have always been victims of various kinds of discrimination (such as the ban on carrying arms) and as such were under constant pressure to justify themselves and relied on the protection of the powers that be. In short, although it is true that Palestine was predominantly Arab-Muslim until 1948, that, too, was the result of centuries of colonisation and military rule by Muslim empires – a fact that is ignored or denied. This is a privileged point of view that needs to be overcome.

Of course, the Israelis must for their part also question the privileges resulting from their military superiority, but that is not the subject of this article. In contrast to Arabs and Turks, Jews are usually perceived and presented as privileged Whites, i.e. oppressors, despite the fact that they were persecuted for thousands of years.

Overcoming Orientalist narratives

This way of thinking pervades other discussions as well. When falafel and hummus are presented as Israeli cuisine, many say that this is cultural appropriation by colonisers – and there is certainly some truth in that. But how much of the culture of the Levant is truly Arabic? Is it possibly of Greek, Jewish, Assyrian, Kurdish or Coptic origin? The heritage of these cultures is rendered invisible by Arab nationalism, just as Palestinian culture has been by the State of Israel. It is true that the process of Arabisation (Turkisation, Kurdisation, Muslimisation) of local cultures was slower and more insidious than the Israelisation of Palestine – but the basic problem is still the same. 

An adequate response to the problems described above is by no means to try to turn back time. The Turks should not return to Central Asia, nor the Arabs to Saudi Arabia, and we cannot expect the Jewish inhabitants of Israel to relocate to their great-grandparents' homelands. It is also highly questionable whether the founding of a nation-state for each of these population groups would really bring an improvement.

What's more, the ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that are treated in this article and elsewhere as monolithic blocs are in fact by no means as clearly defined as is generally assumed, but are instead complex and controversial. National designations have in many cases gained currency only recently, and it is not always clear who belongs and who does not under which circumstances.

All of this makes it difficult to deal with the topic at hand with the aim of achieving greater justice and balance. Nevertheless, the time has come to launch a discussion about the responsibility borne by Arabs, Turks, Persians and Kurds. A simplistic division of the world in which only Europeans can be colonisers and exploiters and all others are mere victims is not only misleading, it also reproduces Orientalist narratives.

Finally, the assumption that the West is always a rational subject fully aware of its actions while "the Orient" is an irrational object of given events not only obscures our view of historical facts, it also subtly demeans Arabs, Turks, Persians and Kurds. Those who have created empires and subjugated entire continents must take responsibility. Let us not leave this discussion to the wrong people.

Tayfun Guttstadt

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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