Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri attacked Obama as a “house Negro,” a racially-charged term used by 1960s black American Muslim leader Malcolm X to describe black slaves loyal to white masters.
“You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like … Malcolm X,” Zawahri said in an 11-minute recording publicized on the Internet on Wednesday. It was al Qaeda’s first high-level commentary on Obama’s election on November 4. Bin Laden could also release a message on Obama within the next two weeks or so, one analyst said.
Zawahri criticized Obama’s support for Israel and plans to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, where he said they were destined to fail. He urged Islamist fighters to keep striking a “criminal” United States until it withdraws from Muslim lands.
The recording was distributed on a videotape that carried pictures of Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and Malcom X, flanking Zawahri in the center.
“Al-Qaeda scorns Obama with racial slur,” Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters, 20 November, 2008.
If you listen to the clip in question, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri actually calls Obama abid al-beit, or “house slave.” Yet al Qaeda translates it as “house Negro,” which is the term that Malcolm X used. I guess they wanted to keep the parallel exact?
In any case, I wonder if this message might actually play better in some parts of the Arab world than we think. Yes, it’s a pretty crude racial epithet, and for a pan-Islamic movement that encompasses Sudanese, Uzbek, and Indonesian members along with the core group of Arabs, it’s probably going to ruffle some feathers. But there is a surprising amount of anti-black racism in Arab countries, and Zawahiri may be hoping to tap into that to drum up new recruits.
“One oddity about the al Qaeda tape,” Blake Hounshell, FP Passport, 20 Novemeber, 2008.
Here is the problem with both of these extracts: Abid عبد does, in fact, literally mean “slave”. When used in everyday conversation to refer to persons with dark skin or of African lineage, it has much the same meaning as “nigger” does in English. While many Arabic-speakers use the term to refer to dark skinned peoples and blacks in everyday speech, rather casually, it is almost never a term of endearment and it never quite loses its hostile and ugly connotation[s]. It resembles the manner in which “nigger” was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries to refer to blacks in the United States. It was considered well and normal. So too with abid. I would translate abid al-bayt عبد البيت not as “House Negro,” but as House Nigger.
With this in mind, though, one has to consider that the use of abid al-bayt may well be deliberate. African-Americans deliberately use the term “House Nigger” to refer to “self-hating blacks” or “Uncle Toms”. Zahwahiri’s usage of the term may well be an appropriation of this usage. That is not all, though. It is likely also evidence of a deeply ingrained (and very common) racial prejudice among Arabic-speakers regarding people of black African ancestry, despite al-Qaeda’s diversity. This prejudice is found throughout the Arab region, from the Gulf to North Africa. Usage of the term is likely an appeal to the term’s double meaning.¹
Regarding the query as to how it might “play” in the Arab world: It has been my general observation that most Arabs have very little sympathy for African-Americans and even less for Arab of African descent. That is not to say that many Arabs do hold such sentiments: most Arab-Americans said that they would vote for Barack Obama and I know for a fact that there are Arabs who genuinely identify with the African-American struggle and harbor a great deal of sympathy for their historic plight.² I would say that those are in the minority, though. Arab (and Middle Eastern) societies regard blacks in a vastly different manner than do Americans, and not for the better (not that America has something to brag about in that regard). Servile background is callously frowned upon and darkness equated not only with evil, but stupidity, ugliness, and criminality as well.
I do not, therefore, believe that this kind of language would make Arabs more sympathetic to the president-elect. Indeed, since Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emmanuel, a fervent support of Israel, as chief of staff many Arabs have begun to weary of Barack Obama. This process was precipitated when he came out as the most ardent of Israel supporters at the AIPAC convention this summer. Qaddafi has for one said that Obama will be forced to “act more white than any of the whites” because of his blackness, something many Arabs might agree with. (I say this based on conversations and comments from friends who travel more widely in the Levant than I do. I’ve heard similar comments about Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice from many Palestinians and Algerians: I heard almost identical comments from Algerians about Rachida Dati after she became pregnant by an invisible man). It would be wishful thinking to believe that a great number of Arabs to pity a leader of African descent who has taken just about every policy line available that was contrary to what the “Arab Street” would desire (aside from Iraq, but even in that his position has been crafted such that it does not appear to please Arabs). I would take the initial part of Hounshell’s query and flip it around: Zawahiri’s comment will probably play better among Arabs sympathetic to his message (such tapes tend to preach to the choir) with the addition of racial overtones. It will probably not gain him any new Somali, Kenyan, Senegalese, or Nigerien recruits, but it will not decrease the number of Arabs seeking his company.
1. There is an irony in the use of abid in reference to blacks in North Africa: A great many slaves who came into the Middle East, and North Africa in particular, were white — Europeans, peoples from the Caucus and so on. Most black slaves, brought up through the Sahara, died on the way to the big trading centers. White slaves were far more numerous in Algeria and Tunisia than were blacks. Therefore it is terrifically ironic when a red-haired Tunisian or blond Algerian bitterly refers to an illegal Malian immigrant as abid, while he passes through on his way to Italy or France. And this is not only the case in North Africa, but many other Arab countries as well.
2. A Lebanese-American friend who worked for the Obama campaign told me that when he went to Arab-American churches and homes to campaign for the president-elect he met enthusiastic supporters only slightly more often than he met individuals who asked him “how a black man could run America,” on account of blacks being stupid and unworthy. Such individuals, encountered more than once, said they refused to vote for a black person, and, according to my friend, were incapable of providing reasons as to why they would not vote for a black person, but could say that they Obama’s being black was enough to not vote for him. There was no reasoning with such voters, as they had already made up their minds, although he was able to convince a few of them that Obama would not run down America like black have their neighborhoods, he said (using their words, not his). I also heard similar things from another Arab-American friend who worked for the campaign in New England but was less directly involved with Arab-American voters specifically (not that Arab-American are not somewhat copious in much of New England: they are and have been for some time).
Update: See Nibras Kazimi’s piece on a recent a broadcast from a jihadist leader in Iraq, pontificating on America’s withdrawal from Iraq as “victory”. Note the terminology used: House slave is used, as well is “black negro” rather than the president’s name. This goes back to my earlier point that usage of this term has little to do with appealing to Malcom X revolutionary zeal than with spitting disrespect at the president.