Cultural Insights into the Middle East: Are Muslims or Arabs Racist?

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 World Heavyweight Title

Most famous black Muslim Mohammad Ali Clay

The newsworthiness political aspects of the Middle East have receded to a point where the general public, even those who closely follow international events, rarely become interested in the seemingly endless intramural bloodletting. A wide yawn and a shrug of the shoulders greet each (daily) recitation of mindless violence and sectarian murder. That may be unfortunate because we still have vital interests in the region and cannot withdraw into fortress America, mainly because fortress America no longer exists.

It has been my primary interest in the Middle East to examine the culture, especially the military culture of the Arab world, but in this post I am describing the Middle Eastern attitude toward race. Let us put that in the context of the Middle East, Arab, and Islamic world.

Race (and racism) is one of  those words bandied about so often by  left wing academics and political ideologues who dominate the public discourse. Reading the Western  press which has largely declined to a third world standard,  and listening to  a puerile sensationalist media,  one would think that racism is exclusive to the Western world, especially the United States. Self-flagellation by an elitist class of privileged  academics and their students, has become the epitome of the zeitgeist and most importantly, a really cool and academically safe thing to do.

As a soldier I have spent a lot of time in foreign countries. It was always my observation that Asian and Middle Eastern countries were far more race conscious than the American society, and I can say that as a southerner who went through a segregated school system and did not go to school with Black Americans until I went to West Point in 1955..

Serving in Vietnam I  observed how the elite women carefully protect themselves from the sun darkening their skin.  They were rarely without the their umbrellas and  I saw the same custom in Korea. Woman with dark skin were considered peasants, people who worked in the fields. I recently read that face bikinis are all the rage in China to protect women from darkening the skin from the sun.

But in terms of hypocrisy, the Arab world and the Islamic world, has to be the top example. For some reason Islam is often considered  a “religion of people of color.”  In the United States,  organizations line “Black Lives Matter” align themselves with extremist Islamist groups.  Islam, like Christianity,  has absolutely nothing to do with the modern connotation of racism. As many Orientalists, such as Bernard Lewis, aver   the Qu’ran expresses no racial or color preference.

In fact, when asked about what does Islam say about racism, many Muslims would recite a saying (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad that states: “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white — except by piety.”

Nevertheless my  nearly  nine years of living and working in the Arab world convinced me that they are far more color  conscious than Americans: Particularly among women for which fair skin is a big plus.

Let me present some examples here:

I use to subscribe to a periodical called the Muslim World. There is a section in the magazine  for those seeking matrimony. The ads are presented by the parents, usually the father.  In the ad there is inevitably a phrase that describes the young lady as well educated, a pious Muslima, and “light skinned.”  Most of these subscribers were Indian or Pakistani .

I traveled in Egypt with a black American officer and he commented on the prejudice against those considered black by the Egyptians. He met one very beautiful young lady working in a store and commented that she would no doubt have many suitors. She  lamented  that such was not the case, as her black origins had condemned her to a lower class marriage.

Egypt is one of the most racist of the Arab counties I have lived in. As one columnist in a small Egyptian newspaper wrote, an Obama could never be elected president in Egypt. In fact many Egyptians especially those who were supporters of Nasser (The president Jamal Abdul Nasser) joked about his dark-skinned successor Anwar Al Sadat, who was ridiculed for years as “Nasser’s black poodle.” Sadat’s mother was Sudanese, and therefore he did not look Egyptian enough for them.

Sadat replaced Nasser as a president after the latter’s death due to a sudden heart attack. He wasn’t elected. Many Americans and westerners saw Sadat as a great Egyptian leader particularly following the peace-treaty with Israel which he initiated. Yet, when I arrived to Egypt in 1981 I was surprised by the animosity of the people toward him. His death was not lamented by many.

In fact, Sadat’s second wife, Jihan, said in a TV program on Al Jazeera4few years ago that “even though he was dark skinned, more than the average Egyptian,”  she thought he was “the most handsome man”.

After a documentary about the Egyptian army in which I appeared in and was aired on al Jazeera few months ago, a number of Egyptian soldiers emailed to thank me for helping  highlighting the execrable  treatment of the Egyptian soldiers in their armed forces.

One in particular, a Nubian of the south of Egypt, described how Nubian soldiers that were considered “African”  were systematically  mistreated. That was not a surprise as this has been well known to anyone who has spent considerable time with the Egyptian military.

This  aspect of  Egyptian society is repeated throughout the Middle East.  Jordan, Lebanon, and particularly Iraqi society  all evidence a history of exclusion and prejudice toward  those of African origin.  A few months ago on the social media was a poignant  appeal by a black Iraqi girl who lamented that she could never be a popular singer despite her excellent voice, because of prejudice toward people like her.

This is not an exception in the Iraqi society, in which some of the  sectarian and virulent prejudice of the Sunni toward the  mostly Shi’a southern  population is perhaps partly based on their supposed  intermixture with the descendants of the famous but little known,  “Zinj (African slave) Revolt.”

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Wahshi ibn Harb was a ٍZinj slave best known in the Islamic history for killing prophet Muhammad’s uncle Hamza at the order of his owner Hind bint Utbah. It is said that Muhammad told Wahshi that he does not want to see him ever again even after the latter became a Muslim.  (Scene from The Messenger/ 1976)[[[[

According to the great orientalist Theodore Noldeke, the Zinj rebellion was “the bloodiest and destructive which the history of western Asia records.” From 870 to 883 the war in the marsh lands of  southern Iraq raged. Hundreds of thousands  of  slaves, mostly Africans, were employed as slaves (Zanj or Zinj in Arabic) working salt mines near Basra.  They were led by an Arab professing the Kharajite doctrine, which like the ISIS of today, including the killing of all prisoners especially other Muslims. A detailed history and analysis of the revolt is found in Alexandre Popovic’s book, The Revolt of the African Slaves in Iraq.

In Arab history the concept of black became embedded with the  institution of slavery which  existed  until the 1940’s in Saudi Arabia. Bernard Lewis, the reknown American Orientalist, chronicled this history in his book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East .   Glubb Pasha in his book  War in the Desert refers frequently to the lot of slaves among the bedouin tribes being better than that of  black “free” persons in the city. He was writing of his time in the Arab Gulf in the  late 1920’s.

As he wrote, ” The tribes of Arabia were literally sprinkled with Negros , imported during the centuries from Africa as slaves. The lot of the slave of a prosperous family was one of the happiest of the bedouin community.” He goes on to write, “The Negro obtained reflected honor from the fame of his “uncle” (master) ; their interest and glory coincided. His race debarred him from leadership on his own merit.” In fact, as he wrote, the word “abid” in Arabic meaning the color black was also used to denote a slave.His book presents an excellent description of the Arab attitude toward blacks, and blackness in general.

Bernard Lewis wrote about the  famous black humorist , by the name of Nusayb, solicited the  promise of safety from  the great  Ummayed Caliph Abd al Malik by  denigrating his race saying,

“My color is black, my hair wooly, my appearance repulsive. I did not attain that which you have vouchsafed me by the honor of my father, or my mother, or my tribe. I attained it only by my mind and tongue.”  As  Bernard Lewis expounds, the passage, “vividly illustrates the association already accepted at the time of blackness, ugliness, and inferior station.” It also points out a salient point in the story of race and class in the Middle East.  In the Arab world, an individual reputation is based more on the reputation of his family than his/her individual  merits.   The skin color is not the basis of the distinction, but more on the assumption that he or she is descended  from a slave family.

When one looks at the portraits or depictions of the Arab notables they are always depicted with fair skin, with a white halo about them. A  particularly warm  compliment   is to say that a man has a “white shiny face.” I remember the Palestinians said this about Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian  movement.  A “white face” was a connotation of honesty and fairness in dealings.

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The Prophet Muhammed as a young man. A painting by an Iranian Woman

The extremist Islamist view of their heaven inhabited by houris, to satisfy their every need,  exhibits an extreme view of  fair skin. These houris, virgins awaiting the shahids, (martyrs) killed in battle against the Kufr (unbelievers)  are described as having skin so fair that their veins show through the skin.

Racial prejudices are present everywhere in the world, as I have indicated earlier and have arisen very early in history , a construct  of man and not his religion. In Galatians , (3:28)  it reads, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In the Qu’ran Chapter XLIX verse 13 it reads, “O people. We have created you from a male and female and have made you into confederacies and tribes so that you may know one another. The noblest among you in the eyes of God is the pious, for God is omniscient and well-informed,”

The point here is not to condemn the Arab world for racial attitudes that exist everywhere, but to dispel the illusion  that the Islamic/Arab world is color blind. They are not and far from it.  The hypocrisy  of recent ideological  movements to equate analyses of Islam and its relation to terrorism as “racism” is an example of the ignorance of history by so many who believe themselves to be the intelligentsia.While  many in the West lie out  tanning in the sun, the women of the East seek to shield themselves from the same sun. In race discussions no society has the right to cast the first stone.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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