Are Arabs black or white

"No" to racism in the Arab world

"The standard of beauty in our society is to be white," says activist Khawla Ksiksi, describing the lifestyle of many women in her country. She is the co-founder of the Voices of Black Tunisian Women group. "Black women are pressured to straighten their hair, get rid of their curls and lighten their skin in order to be accepted by society and conform to their standards," Ksiksi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This ideal is very often passed on in families. For example, when mothers advise their daughters to use bleach on the skin. "If a young woman wants to get married, one expects her to be fair-skinned." This is how Suzan Kim Otor from the platform #defyhatenow describes the common expectations in South Sudan to the news channel al-Jazeera. "If she goes without bleach, she will find that her friends speak badly of her."

Self-critical discussions

The self-image of dark-skinned women is just one of several topics that have been heatedly discussed again in the Arab world since the violent death of the African American George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May. In the course of the Black Lives Matter movement, many activists in the region ask self-critically to what extent there is a specifically Arab-Muslim racism.

Muslims in Germany are now also leading this discussion. "In parts of the Muslim community in this country there is at least a serious argument about their own racism," says Eren Güvercin, journalist, author and advisory board member of the Alhambra Society, who recently discussed the topic in an online event.

"The causes of racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of group-related enmity are in most cases the same," said Güvercin in an interview with DW. "The devaluation and dehumanization of the other should demonstrate one's own superiority." Anyone who thinks and acts like this does not necessarily have a guilty conscience. "Some Muslims believe that they can sweep this problem under the carpet with phrases like 'A Muslim cannot be a racist or an anti-Semite'." They would then quickly see a self-critical discourse as a betrayal of their own culture and history.

Racism as a colonial import

The clear conscience that Güvercin alludes to here goes back at least in part to European colonial history, which began with Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798. During the colonial period, the Arabs submitted to the norms of European colonization, says the British-Sudanese artist Rayan El Nayal in the online magazine SceneArabia. This urge to adopt foreign norms continues to have an effect today. "This is how Arabs begin to hate their own skin or their own culture," she says, outlining the mechanisms of this complicated relationship to oneself.

Self-critical look: anti-racism activists in Tunisia

This also affects the relationship between light-skinned and dark-skinned Arabs or Muslims. Often the former felt superior. "We are modern, but these people are not" - that is the self-image of some fair-skinned people in the region, says El Nayal. Dark-skinned or black people are devalued by deep-seated stereotypes, sometimes terms such as "servant" or "slave" are common in everyday language in Arab countries.

The legacy of the slave trade

However, this also has roots that go back further: for centuries, almost all Arab societies traded in slaves who were deported from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, either to sell them to European traders or to subject them to forced labor themselves. In some ruling epochs, slaves also served in the army. "From dynasty to dynasty, from century to century, slavery became a Muslim reality," writes the Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel in his major study on slavery in the Islamic world ("L'esclavage en terre d'islam", 2007).

Uncertain future: Enslaved East Africans on board a slave ship 1873

An unspoken hierarchy of skin colors determines the proportion of the population groups in parts of the Arab world to this day. In Egypt, for example, dark-skinned Nubians are often treated as second-class citizens. In the past, the prejudice has also developed that skin color and social class belong together, so the Egyptian historian Amina Elbendary told the online magazine Egyptian Streets: "This also meant that a dark skin color was associated with belonging to the working or serving class . "

Diverse racist experiences

As in all parts of the world, racism now takes very different forms in the Arab world. A drastic example is the enslavement of African migrants by criminal gangs in Libya. There is a multitude of racist discrimination in everyday life. A Tunisian activist recently complained on the online platform Qantara that this could be seen, for example, in taxi drivers who reject black passengers or in families who disapprove of relationships and marriages between people of different skin color. In Lebanon, comparatively wealthy citizens recently simply put their Ethiopian domestic helpers on the street in the wake of the economic crisis and the corona pandemic, often without having paid them their wages.

Unprotected: Ethiopian domestic workers in front of their country's embassy in Beirut

The actress and director Maryam Abu Khaled reported in a highly regarded Instagram video about her everyday racist experiences as blacks in the Palestinian territories. Often there is no intentional hostility behind this, but rather a rather thoughtless handling of racist stereotypes, explains Maryam Abu Khaled in the humorously designed video. She has experienced that parents warned their children against too much exposure to the sun in their presence so that they do not look "like Maryam" later. In a video by the comedian group Datteltäter, dark-skinned Muslims in Germany also report on discrimination - in the majority society, but also within their own community.

The journalist and activist Eren Güvercin from the Alhamra Society has a clear opinion on how racism can be overcome within Muslim communities - and must: "By speaking openly about it as a Muslim and not being silent. And by reflecting self-critically on Islamic history - and does not take refuge in their romanticization. "