Why are many people racist towards Pakistanis?
Are the Arab societies - and specifically the Egyptian society - racist? A question that had penetrated the public discourse in the course of the past few years, but was then quickly overlaid by other questions that were supposedly more urgent for people's everyday needs. The fact that an answer is still pending is due to the complexity and taboo nature of the topic as well as the difficulty of conducting serious opinion polls in Arab countries. But with the global wave of anti-racist protests following the violent death of George Floyd in the United States, the issue has come back into focus.
First a rough definition of the term: Racism is the conviction that people have different skills and characteristics depending on the color of their skin. The term also sometimes stands for discrimination against people on the basis of their religion. For example, when an Egyptian of Muslim faith claims that Egyptian Copts smell bad, and thus makes a blanket statement about the biological nature of all Copts. Unfortunately, I have heard this sentence more than once.
Even if the underlying concept seems strange, stupid, even crazy to my thinking: Racism is a constant in Arab history (and in the broadest sense throughout human history). The pattern is always the same. First ever deeper trenches are torn open between individual groups of the population, then a situation is created in which a torrent of hatred pours unhindered into those trenches and fills them up to the top, until finally the hateful floods emanate such a disgusting stench that it stinks takes your breath away.
The hatred can also have other characteristics beyond the skin color and religious affiliation of the target, such as sexual orientation or a person's physical or mental limitation. Just like the saying goes: "If the one-eyed man goes to heaven, he spoils him." As the Egyptian historian Ahmed Taymour described it, the one-eyed man stands for depravity and malice.
Racism - a constant in Arab history
From Al-Mutanabbi, the most outstanding of all Arab poets, there is a famous mocking verse against the Ichschidid ruler Abu l-Misk Kafur (10th century AD): "You only buy the slave together with the rod ... because unclean and spoiled (arab. andschas manakid) are the slaves ". In this verse, Al-Mutanabbi sums up the essence of racism with his own linguistic originality. The black slave - in this case Kafur, who was descended from Abyssinian slaves - is meant najaz, so dirty, filthy, unclean, as well mankud, so of bad character. Therefore one has to chastise him with the stick. Al-Mutanabbi ascribes negative character traits to black slaves as a whole.
Al-Mutanabbi by no means conjured this linguistic legacy out of nowhere. Nor did it just slip out in an emotional surge to mock Kafur. Rather, he was able to fall back on firmly established racist structures. Slavery was an integral part of the social and economic system of the Islamic state under which our poet lived.
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