** FILE ** In this June 26, 2008 file photo, Sheiks from the Shiite Tammimi tribe confer at a reconciliation meeting with the Sunni Jabouri tribe in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The Politics of Racism in the Middle East

Editor’s note: first published in December 2014 in the print edition.

Nothing in the Middle East stays the same for long. Extraordinary political and electoral shifts throughout the second half of 2014 have facilitated some of the most startling changes to the face of the region. Both state and non-state actors have used religious and political sectarianism to galvanize supporters in hopes of dominating their spheres of influence. This in turn has altered the region’s balance of power, which all too often ends in more bloodshed.

** FILE ** In this June 26, 2008 file photo, Sheiks from the Shiite Tammimi tribe confer at a reconciliation meeting with the Sunni Jabouri tribe in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
** FILE ** In this June 26, 2008 file photo, Sheiks from the Shiite Tammimi tribe confer at a reconciliation meeting with the Sunni Jabouri tribe in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Yet for all the talk surrounding Sunni-Shia schisms in Iraq or political violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the factor of race (or racism) has often escaped the global discourse when it comes to the Middle East. Race is not often the initial factor spurring groups into war or occupation, but like sectarianism, it is often one of several factors that can be used to rally supporters to a cause.

This is the reality of political racism, which, though often not fully represented in the political conversations regarding the region, is a kind of sectarianism. Fear and hatred for the political Other is complemented by the same kind of antagonism for the racial and ethnic Other. The pervasive nature of this reality often disguises the functional similarities between different types of discrimination in the Middle East.

What is the essential difference between killing a fellow human for his ethnic background and the decimation of a group of people because of their religious beliefs? There are of course no real differences, morally speaking. Yet, the way these issues are discussed can hide the significance of the deeply racialized features of the region’s conflicts, often painting these circumstances over with discussions of sectarianism or politics.

The following discussion will focus on racial fault lines that have been made clearer by this year’s geopolitical shifts in the Middle East. It is to show that despite the world’s constant slogans regarding globalization and post-racialism, racialized politics and conflicts have never disappeared.

Israel, Race and Occupation

There is no starker example of racism in the Middle East than the Israeli state’s continuing encroachment on Palestinian land and livelihoods. The relationship between the Israeli establishment and the Palestinians has, given certain political inequities, always been animated at least partially by race. The occupier has evolved, through the application of Zionist ideologies, into an ethnocentric entity that prizes its existence as a bulwark against “barbaric” Palestinian Arabs.

It is the longest occupation in the post-World War II era, even if counting only from 1967, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The initial Zionist annexation of Palestinian lands reaches back much earlier, culminating in the Nakba of 1948, when Israeli military forces took around 78% of Mandate Palestine, driving out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had cultivated that land for centuries.

Since then, the Israeli state has downplayed its position of political dominance by portraying itself as a victim of “racist” Arabs who want nothing better than to destroy the “Jewish state.” Meanwhile, the Israel lobby, made up (after 1967) of a loose cohort of pro-Zionist entities, has exerted its influence over elected officials in the United States, further entrenching the image of Israel as a nation of Holocaust survivors under siege by an ocean of “medieval” Muslim Arabs who want nothing to do with democracy or liberal values.

The results have been disastrous for Palestinians. The refugee population has ballooned into the world’s largest, while the Israeli government has erected an annexation wall in the West Bank in addition to placing the Gaza Strip under an illegal economic blockade. The International Court of Justice in 2004 deemed the annexation wall illegal, and also ruled that Israel must withdraw to its 1967 borders to allow for the realization of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In other words: End the occupation.

Successive Israeli administrations, regardless of their political leanings, have ignored such rulings. The continuous building of illegal settlements and the ongoing transfer of Israeli settlers into the West Bank are direct violations of Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This kind of encroachment, along with the second-class status of Arabs in Israel and the slow destruction of the Gaza Strip, among other methods of discrimination, are racist policies. The conflict’s political realities have always been animated by a dark racism, and the rejuvenation of this reality is often made public by Israel’s bloody massacres of Palestinians.

The latest example of this political and racial cruelty was the bombardment of the Gaza Strip in July and August of this year. Dubbed (in true Orwellian fashion) Operation Protective Edge, it was the Israeli government’s bloodiest bombing campaign in Gaza to date. The United Nations put the number of Gazans killed at around 2,200, of which 1,500 were civilians, in addition to over 11,000 wounded. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers were killed, as were six civilians in Israel when Hamas responded to Israeli attacks with rocket barrages. In addition to airstrikes, the Israel Defense Forces also initiated a ground invasion into Gaza, but only achieved limited success.

This whole incident started in June when three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in the West Bank by militants with ties to Hamas but who were acting independently of the group’s political leadership. Israel then initiated Operation Brother’s Keeper, a large campaign of raids to arrest (and kill, occasionally) several dozen Hamas-linked individuals in the West Bank. This set off the first barrage of Hamas rockets into Israel.

But while Gaza was being bombed and invaded illegally, another “silent” clash was taking place in Jerusalem. Called the “Silent Intifada” by some Israeli lawmakers who want to increase security measures, these clashes have been going on disparately but continuously in East Jerusalem since the killing of the three Israeli teenagers. Racial tensions are thick, manifesting in numerous clashes, including confrontations in November after the body of a Palestinian man, Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni, was found hanging from the ceiling of a bus depot in the West Jerusalem area of Har Hotzfim.  Witnesses have said that Ramouni was the victim of a “lynching” by Jewish settlers in the area. The coroner later concluded that Ramouni committed suicide, but it’s difficult to know whom to trust in a politically charged environment like Jerusalem’s.

If Ramouni was killed, it’s just the latest tragedy in a series of killings, assassinations and demonstrations that has rocked the Jerusalem area this year. It’s difficult to find another example within this prolonged conflict that more effectively highlights the racial overtones of the occupation. Orthodox Jews are protesting to be able to pray at the site containing Al Aqsa Mosque, further exacerbating the racial fault line. These incidents, along with decades of oppressive Israeli policies, should serve as a reminder that racial hatred and violence has now become a fully integrated aspect of the conflict.

ISIS and the Racism of Sectarian Politics

The year’s most talked-about geopolitical change has been the rise of the “Islamic State,” formerly known as ISIS. This is the first time in the post-9/11 era that a non-state actor has fought conventional forces in two countries — Syria and Iraq — and come out on top, the result of which is a radical destabilization of the region’s political equilibrium.

The Islamic State, totaling about 10,000 fighters (according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert in Iraq), routed state forces this year with just a few thousand fighters. Its takeover of a large swath of northwestern Iraq, culminating in the sacking of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, had the Western media buzzing with serious alarm.

Formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq and previously led by the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, the group eventually broke with al-Qaida to become the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. After its victories, the Islamic State apparently showed larger ambitions by dropping the “Iraq” and “al-Sham” from its name. Even al-Qaida has distanced itself from the almost-arbitrary violence doled out by Islamic State fighters, the nature of which illuminates the deeply discriminatory ideology that animates the group.

The fanatical group has become synonymous with the term “sectarian,” with its hatred for non-Sunni sects within the Muslim ummah. Taking its cue from Zarqawi, who was deeply influenced by a book called The Management of Savagery, by pseudo-scholar Abu Bakr Naji, the group’s expansionist agenda is twinned with a desire to cleanse the Muslim world of “polytheists.”

This has created a situation whereby Islamic State fighters have used sectarian divisions as a way to galvanize their group. In this sense, their fanatically pro-Sunni orientation differs very little from racial prejudice. The term “racism,” by Western conventional standards, connotes physical appearance and attributes, but the functional difference between discrimination by race and sect in this case (as in virtually all similar cases), is nil. The sectarian strategy and ideology that underpins the (un)Islamic State is racist in the strongest sense of the term.

Still, sectarian racism in the Middle East, as with many of the region’s features, tends to coalesce out of a set of extraordinary political processes. The complex political situations surrounding Iraq and Syria were born of invasion and attempted revolution, respectively. As the micro-dynamics put in place by such extraordinary events continue to change over time, different groups begin to use sectarian politics for their own purposes. The sectarian violence or civil war set off by the American invasion of Iraq is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. The situation became unstable enough for the country to split into three separately functioning enclaves: Kurds in the North, Shia in the South, and Sunnis in the middle. The speed with which the repressed (under Saddam Hussein) Shia population secured certain areas of the country with militias was quite startling and driven by a highly sectarian motor that pitted Iraqi against Iraqi.

The eventual victory of the Iraqi Shia in the subsequent elections put this sectarian relationship within an unequal political context. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, had an administration that was more or less dedicated to a sectarian agenda, and made the demonization of the Sunni political bloc a way to galvanize his own base. This oppressive dynamic, together with the violent turn of the Syrian revolt, helped create the ultimate sectarian monster that is the Islamic State, which not only pursues territorial expansionism, but is happy to publicize its killings of “traitor” Shia (among other “infidels”) in online video clips.

It seems that as long as there is political conflict in the region, sectarianism will always be another factor wreaking further havoc on an already embattled part of the world. It’s a testament to the way human beings relate to their religion during times of mass distress and conflict, as religious scripture and revealed knowledge are always misappropriated for the cruelest of objectives. The resulting systems of political and sectarian discrimination are basically impossible to distinguish from classical racism.

Unfortunately, none of this means that racism based purely on physical traits (as opposed to beliefs) has disappeared from the Middle East. In fact, as states and large political/sectarian factions battle in the region, Arab states also harbor their own share of racism. Sadly, this kind of prejudice against non-Arabs plays a substantial role in how some states function domestically. A closer look at these systemic forms of racial prejudice reveals the shortcomings of Arab regimes that have not fully dealt with the implications of pluralism.

Authoritarianism and the Fostering of Racial Discrimination

For the talk about the “Arab Winter” and the failures of numerous anti-authoritarian movements in the region to replace dictatorships with democratic systems of governance, the Tunisian Republic stands out as somewhat of a positive exception. Unlike Syria, Libya or Yemen, it hasn’t descended into failed-state-like chaos. And unlike Egypt, Tunisia didn’t end up banning its Islamist party and hasn’t allowed remnants of the ancien regime to coalesce in ways that block the machinations of electoral politics.

A day after the Army killed at least 24 protestors marching for greater protection of Egypt's minorities.  Though it was a brutal assault, clearly aimed at fostering sectarian tensions, people made great efforts to show unity between faiths.  "Muslims, Christians, One Hand" was the chant that rang the loudest.  Omar Robert Hamilton/Flickr
A day after the Army killed at least 24 protestors marching for greater protection of Egypt’s minorities. Though it was a brutal assault, clearly aimed at fostering sectarian tensions, people made great efforts to show unity between faiths. “Muslims, Christians, One Hand” was the chant that rang the loudest. Omar Robert Hamilton/Flickr

Ever since the 2011 protests that triggered the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have had a relatively violence-free time setting up an electoral system. After adopting a new constitution this January, which created a 217-seat Parliament, the small North African nation held its first parliamentary elections in October (the secularist Nidaa Tounes party won, albeit with a minority). The presidential election on November 23 had no clear winner and is headed to a run-off.

These positive developments have changed the face of Arab politics and prompted a certain degree of optimism in the casual observer. Yet, just a few months before parliamentary elections, another kind of protest was seen in Tunisia.

For several days in March, black Tunisians marched from the island of Djerba to Tunis, the capital. This was the “Equality Caravan,” made up of several anti-racism organizations in Tunisia that have popped up to express long-suppressed, pre-revolutionary grievances. It’s a prime example of domestic racial tension within an Arab country, though certainly not the only one.

The exact number of black Tunisians is unknown because of the way the country structures its national census. There is no law criminalizing the discrimination of black Africans in Tunisia, and the post-revolutionary state has resisted calls to pass such laws, saying instead that all Tunisian people are protected under the constitution.

This isn’t good enough for black Tunisians, some of whom have organized into civil rights advocacy groups to campaign against what they see as a long history of anti-black sentiment in their country. The French anthropologist Stephanie Poussel noted to Al Jazeera that, “No one could touch upon the subject of black rights before the revolution,” as doing so was taboo — it damaged “the sacred national Tunisian unity.” Clearly, revolution and democracy are not always followed immediately by full implementation of civil rights. This reveals the difficult reality that even in pluralistic polities that hold elections, certain kinds of justice have to be fought for.

It doesn’t even matter that Tunisia has the honorable title of being the first Arab-majority country to ban slavery, as it did in 1846 (though it took a while for the decree to be properly enforced). Black Tunisians today are still being called “abeed,” or slave, and “wseef,” a racial slur, in addition to having to deal with systemic discrimination at the sociopolitical and economic levels.

It’s clear that the legacy of authoritarianism and the reality of anti-democratic impulses make it difficult for certain countries to internalize the principles of human rights. There are tougher questions surrounding the contemporary legitimacy of traditional practices (social or religious, for example) that reasonable people can disagree and debate over, but racial discrimination is not among those difficult issues.

It would be unfair to single out Tunisia in this (after all, its people have successfully rebelled enough to start the difficult process of further democratization). It’s really much easier in this case to look at the Gulf states, several of which provide, arguably, even starker examples of systemic racial prejudice. Take Saudi Arabia for example. Already the stronghold of hardcore-Sunni Wahhabism and a land not known for its love of minority Muslim sects, the kingdom that holds two of Islam’s holiest sites is also known for a substantial level of racism toward non-Arabs.

The case of Nawal al-Husawi is illustrative of this reality. The black, female pilot (apparently women are allowed to fly planes in Saudi Arabia despite being prohibited from driving) married to an American man was called a slave by at least one woman in a shopping center in Mecca, on Saudi National Day. She decided to sue after the women refused to apologize. Fortunately, an apology was eventually provided and the lawsuit was dropped.

The systemic realities that underpin al-Husawi’s experience are connected to migration of a different sort. Not migration of individuals into Saudi Arabia from the West hoping to live in a Muslim-majority country. Rather, the migration of laborers from African, South Asian and Southeast Asian countries has not been accompanied by implementation and enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation by host countries.

The United Arab Emirates is another good example. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Emirates countless times over exploitation and abuse of domestic migrant workers (most of them women). These criticisms go back at least a decade, culminating in a 79-page report published in October. Not only is the country under-staffed and ill-equipped to deal with the mass abuse of over 140,000 domestic migrant workers, Human Rights Watch also notes that an objectifying, possessive attitude tends to underpin the climate of discrimination.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not the only culprits in this respect, and it’s not fair to conflate racism in the region with some intrinsic character of “Arab culture” or “Arab character.” These are social problems that all societies struggle with, especially when the governing class uses authoritarian measures to stunt discussion and democratic reform on these issues.

Still, as we see with Lebanon, which also has a tradition of abuse and discrimination against migrant workers, democracy itself doesn’t solve the problem. Only tireless education and advocacy by citizens who care about democratic equality can mitigate the scourge of racial prejudice in the Arab world, and the implementation of anti-authoritarian measures is key to opening up societies to finding solutions.

An Uncertain Future

It’s been popular to think of a globalizing, market-friendly world that will result progressively in a planet without discrimination. Since we have more technology to communicate and know one another, and a rampant consumer culture that appeals to the primal human tendency to ingest, then shouldn’t racial prejudice be a thing of the past?

This assumption conflates technological and civilizational progress with moral progress. The former seems inevitable, but the latter is a myth. The Middle East is a useful example in this case, as money and consumerism haven’t done much to mitigate the social ill of racial prejudice (or of political injustices). Whether based purely on physical features or on ideological sectarianism, the events of 2014 (but not constrained to a single year) have further illuminated how political fault lines and conflicts can be exacerbated and taken advantage of by certain parties to advance their respective causes. On the flip side, relatively peaceful nations in the region, regardless of political orientation or status, continue to deny or ignore entrenched problems of discrimination.

In a part of the world known for its volatile and oft-changing political realities, one can only hope that the Middle East’s storms will one day take away the entrenched nature of the region’s racial prejudices.


  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor
    Steven Zhou

    Steven Zhou is a writer and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Read his work at www.zhoujournal.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at @stevenzzhou

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on