(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
In 2008, when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election, it wasn’t just an exceptional event for African Americans. Many in the Arab region, such as African-Iraqis, mistakenly believed that they had an opportunity to rise up and be equal with other citizens.
As time passes, however, events such as the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers make it clear that discrimination against black people still persists in the United States—and, of course, in the Arab world.
In Iraq, many people decline to acknowledge the existence of racial discrimination against African-Iraqis, a community that numbers about 400,000, most of whom live in the Basra province. However, I can confirm, through my contact as a teacher with dozens of young black women and men, that they experience a great deal of racism. I listen daily to their stories of discrimination. Some of their experiences have dug deep inside them, leaving wounds that are difficult to heal, and that waste energy that would be better invested if their confidence in themselves was higher and they could focus on improving their own abilities.
The word “abd”—the Arabic synonym for a slave—is still used by other Iraqis to describe African-Iraqis, despite their rejection of this name and their preference for other labels, such as “black” or “brown.” But there is no broad political movement to fight the discrimination against them, especially in light of the unwillingness of many African-Iraqis to speak publicly about the blatant discrimination they face.
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At the end of 2012, for example, I was conducting interviews during field research with African-Iraqis. I was talking with a professor of African descent at the University of Basra. The professor spoke roughly to me, refusing to talk about a topic he found useless, and that might create problems. So, I told him how I managed to find his office. I asked a student about him, and he said, “Do you mean the abd [slave] professor? You can find his office in that direction.”
This awkward conversation was an example of African-Iraqis’ trying to ignore the reality of discrimination and intimidation.
This denial, however, is not limited to the minority community, as it is more like a perpective dominating the public space with a false authority. The federal government denies the harsh reality of this forgotten group. There is no general director of African-Iraqi descent in public institutions, and there is a negligence of the demands that a handful of activists are brave enough to make publicly.
Racist practices against black women in Iraq are even more frequent.
Activists seek to end the discrimination against African-Iraqis, to increase their positive participation in public life and to improve their economic conditions, as they often live in unimaginable poverty. The majority of African-Iraqis live in slums in the Al-Zubair area, in Basra, and most of their children are deprived of access to education.
Racist practices against black women in Iraq are even more frequent. “I face a double discrimination wherever I go,” said Marwa Hassan, an African-Iraqi activist. “First, I am a woman, and secondly, I am a brown one of African descent. This increases the complexity of my life and impedes my ambition.” Marwa recounts a series of incidents she has faced. She said that security police at border checkpoints often do not believe that she is an Iraqi because of her skin color.
Social marginalization is followed by political marginalization, despite the launching of the first movement representing Iraqis of African descent (the Free Iraqis Movement) in 2008 expressing the aspirations of African-Iraqis, defending their causes, and seeking to revive their identity. However, members of the group were unable to achieve any official representation in the local council elections. The 2013 assassination of Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, a prominent civil activist and advocate of the rights of African-Iraqis, was a blow to the aspirations of this socially marginalized minority. The assassination left its impact on other activists who were working with Dhiab or independently, who tried to spread awareness among the members of this marginalized society.
Today, with the huge magnitude of global sympathy for the Black Lives Matter Movement, I think there is a good opportunity to reconsider Iraqi racist practices towards the ethnic minorities in our country. We cannot sympathize with victims abroad and deny the existence of hundreds in our society.
The 2013 assassination of Jalal Dhiab, a prominent civil activist and advocate of the rights of African-Iraqis, was a blow to the aspirations of this socially marginalized minority.
Of course, a community culture that has been rooted for thousands of years cannot be ended quickly. But it’s essential to start change sooner rather than later.
As a human-rights scholar, I believe that the beginning should be with local legislation criminalizing racism in all its forms, as well as hate speech wherever it exists. This should be followed by a review of academic curricula starting in early school levels to remove any racist discourse, even if unintended, besides the addition of many subjects that promote a culture of diversity, equality and acceptance of others. Without this sort of education, no real change can be made in our society.
Saad Salloum is an assistant professor of international relations at the College of Political Science in Al-Mustansiryah University. He is a founding members of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue, the National Center for Confronting Hate Speech in Iraq, and the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity. Salloum has published 16 books on diversity in Iraq and the Middle East, including his latest, The End of Diversity in Iraq (2020).