Why Most Arabs don’t care if Zawahiri casts slurs on Obama

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.

250px-slaves_zadib_yemen_13th_century_bnf_parisHere 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.

10 thoughts on “Why Most Arabs don’t care if Zawahiri casts slurs on Obama

  1. Just a comment about Rachida Dati. It is absolutely impossible that she is pregnant from Sarkozy. She was a very good friend of his ex-wife Cecilia and fell out from Sarko’s inner circle when he met Carla Bruni (long before her pregnancy). As she said herself, she has a complicated and busy life, having had liaisons with (other) rich and powerful people, some married men. I would bet that the father of her child belongs to this rich entourage rather than the inner political circles.

    As for her massive unpopularity, it has both tho do with the fact that she is seen as a decoy to cover Sarkozy’s right wing ideas and for the fact that she defends against all logic measures and policies that are obviously wrong and doomed. On top of this, her obnoxious and super-aggressive style is simply unacceptable in French usual politics.

  2. According to the Arab American Institute and Zogby polling 89% of Arab American voters went to Obama. Does this disprove the idea of an anti-black sentiment among Arab Americans (not Arabs as a whole).

    I really can’t agree or disagree with the claim of anti-black racism in middle eastern countries. Personnally I have not witnessed it.

    I have heard the term abid but never heard of an alternate word. I have understood it to mean “negro” and not is ugly cousin.

  3. hmmm, thats what i felt sourly when I heard this quote, that it was more deeply offensive than a simple ‘uncle tom’ comment..

    Then again, most of my time spent in the arab world was mauritania (which many arabs are even too ‘racist’ to admit is arab) which is a horrorshow racially, where i commonly heard comments of the skin crawlingly ugly sort. But they are only one generation away from slavery vs. ~140 yrs here in the US.

    The point where I doubt your analysis is why else would they use abid al bayt? from your knowledge, is al bayt a common addition, or familiar term? B/c otherwise, it seems like a very deliberate wording, a pointed Malcolm X reference. I dont think it has to be either “appropriation of this usage” or racial prejudice. I’m pretty sure its both…

  4. Alqaida is a Sunni,Salafi movement. Its declared aims are the fight( Jihad) against the new (white) crusaders and the Muslim collaborators (= dictators= traitors),and the creation of an Islamic state in terms of Caliphate and to defend the Dar al Islam and the Umma Islamia(= restoration of its lost dignity). For this reasons, I dont think that the racial matter would influence the Muslims in terms of Jihad. I would tend to believe that, despite any anti-black resentments, this move would rather harm the organisation in the Muslim world.

    I think that there are two main reasons why Alqaida was successful(if stil I am not sure) in fascinating young Muslims. First, the ignorance that the arabic education system for decades produced. This is important when we consider that the Arabs are seen in the Muslim world as Hamalet ar Rissala(= missionaries). Second, the feeling of inferiority. This is important when we consider the rhetoric of the Arab regimes, both those installed after the Sykes-Picot Agreement or came to power after the so called independence. The Muslims who are proud of their religion and history and culture were disappointed by the fact that despite all this and the wealth of their countries and their geographical position ,their development and their voice in the world became weaker and weaker. This means that all the current Arab regimes have failed. All these regimes are protected and supported massivily by the west. September 11th marked the proof of their failure definitively. At least then , serious and loud was necessary.

    Now we have two dangerous developments in our undemocratic Arab world that we should worry about. First, the wide spread of the nuclear reactors . This advanced technology helps the dictators to maintain their power when is presented as a political achievment. I think many Muslims were proud of the rise of the Muslim power Pakistan.Now we are not sure anymore if this Muslim state will survive the serious challenge it is facing. The installation of such technologies in countries with no working democratic structures,will, sooner or later, lead to negative developments. In case of uprising, for example, any tribe, ethnic group or militia could seize those facilities. This example applies to the Arab states.If there are no restrictions and tough conditions on the part of the western countries regarding the supply of nuclear power, the west will sooner or later be forced to send troops to protect those reactors. The only thing the west needs is to require that free , transparent and internationally monitored elections have first to be held . The west will, at least, know the legitimate people with whom it has to deal. Continuing doing business as usual, is waste of time,nonsense and irrational. The Arab dictators are telling the west that free elections would help radical groups to come to power ( and give the Algerian FIS and Palastinean Hamas as examples). Let us assume that this claim is right. Which are the efforts undertaken by those regimes to introduce democracy? Democracy is a process that at some point has to be started. Democracy is a behavior that people must learn, in the family , the school,it means teaching people to take responssibility, to express themselves, to participate, tolerance,respect, humanity, human rights self-fulfillment, eccess to information, etc. People must learn that it is possible to achieve their goals by the use of peaceful means. I am sure that this process can only start when the faces of dictatorship, repression and torture disappear. Promoting this democratic culture is the only way to defeat the extremism and terrorism (= to defeat the ignorance ). The Arab dictators pretend to implement political reforms. They have been discussing whether laicism coincides with the Islam for decades. I have been hearing this debate as far as I can remember. The problem is not whether the Islam accepts or whether the Shura means democracy. The important thing is that these regimes have missed to prepare the Arab societies for the challenges of this 21th century. Now it is too late to reform these countries.All these dictators studied in the west, their children as well,they depend at 100% on the western products. All the strong Islamic Caliphates were inspired by the neighboring cultures ( empires). These dictatorships are strange, they never learn. They merely consume.

    Second, the wide spread of the so called Bunuk Islamiyya ( Islamic banks). Ofcorse every Muslim will be happy when he hears this. Me too. The problem is that the management of these banks, that we know is close to those dictators , is using now the current financial crisis for missionary work(= ideologically). I am not sure whether these banks compply with the Islamic criteria or not. To tell ignorant and naive people now that the western bank system ( al kafir) , on which those managers and their dictators compltly depend, is about to collapse due to the western sins and kufr, and that the Islamic banks are the salvation for the world and therfore should replace the modern banks is absolute nonsense. Of corse the Islamic methods, that this banks not necessarily represent, can inspire the modern financial system.The important thing is to know first where these banks are investing their maney. The Muslims should be aware of the fact that the timing of such advertisement could lead to another kind of Jihad: the financial Jihad, the last thing we need.

    I think that the Arab regimes are benefiting from Alqaida. They always look for fields of confrontation and danger where they can play their role like they used to do during the Cold War.

    I do hope that the president-elect Barak Obama, instead of beginning new wars, tries to focus on the democracy and human rights in the Arab countries.The sooner,the better. If the Arabs could get rid of those dictators on their own, or with other help, the former colonial west might lose, because of his support for the dictators, who oppress their people. This western behavior is seen in the Arab world as hypocritical.I think the west is fighting the right enemy on the wrong front.

  5. addendum :

    1.( At least then , serious and loud was necessary), add the word: self-criticism

    2. criticising the bank system is normally a subject of the left-wing parties, who remained silent.This is why it seems stupid that the criticism comes from the Islamic banks that are close to conservative Islamic states.

  6. 2 Boulos:

    You must confirm by citing this quote: “According to the Arab American Institute and Zogby polling 89% of Arab American voters went to Obama.”

    I think you just made that up, because neither source you mention has made such a claim.

  7. Boulous – There are alternative words that could have been used, like “zunji” or most obviously some form of “aswad” (black). What would be considered more offensive depends mostly on regional usage, I think. (Check out The Lounsbury’s post at ‘Aqoul for his views on that; also don’t miss Mr. McCants.)

    I assume that Z got the “3abid el-beit” term from some Arabic translation of Malcolm X, since he seems to be/consider himself familiar with him. I think it captures the spirit of “house negro” pretty well, actually. As a phrase it definitely carries a sense of racial subjugation in English as well, even if the individual words have a more neutral meaning.

    So, it’s a slur, but in a Malcolm X context the slur is certainly not directed at blacks in general, but against those blacks that willingly continue to prop up institutional racism and belittle themselves by serving a white system, as he claims Obama is. Of course there’s also the possibility that he has tried to choose a deliberately more offensive term. I doubt it though. I don’t see why he would try to add an insult to African Americans and similar communities in a message that seems partly designed to appeal to them. And whatever he picked, really, could be spun the same way.

    More generally, I think the most interesting part of this is that it highlights how affected Zhawahiri’s generation of Islamists (the student crowd who were politicized in the 60s) are by Western leftist counter-culture. Quite an un-Salafi reference. Also note bin Ladin’s endorsement of various leftist anti-US literature he’s read in translation.

  8. Hi alle, thanks for your take.

    So, it’s a slur, but in a Malcolm X context the slur is certainly not directed at blacks in general, but against those blacks that willingly continue to prop up institutional racism and belittle themselves by serving a white system, as he claims Obama is. Of course there’s also the possibility that he has tried to choose a deliberately more offensive term. I doubt it though. I don’t see why he would try to add an insult to African Americans and similar communities in a message that seems partly designed to appeal to them. And whatever he picked, really, could be spun the same way.

    I’d agree. Your point about the generational aspect is also especially interesting, and on target. There’s a definite “Third Worldist” tendency in some of bin Laden’s tapes and statements, and it certainly comes from their generational circumstance.

    As for alternatives vs. abid to describe blacks, I think of it this way. If one were to describe a dark skinned Arab or black Arab as being abid, to his face, he would (most likely) be offended. I know non-black Arabs avoid using the term in front of black Arabs. I think the Lounsbury’s take is very accurate in its second to last and last paragraphs. I share precisely the same sentiments.

  9. addendum tow:
    1. the fact that al Qaida is a Sunni, Salafi ( precisely, the Jihadi wing of Salafia ), means that it refers strictly to the Koran, which treats all colors and races as equal. This should be distinguished from what might be understood as an Islamic tolerance of slavery. This kind of (slavery) like the multiple marriage have their relegious interpretation.This interpretation should ,in turn, not necessarily justify their practises in the Islamic societies nowadays.

    2. ( At least then , serious and loud self-criticism
    was necessary): this sentense is not complete. It is a conditional. I would rewright it in the following way:
    At least then , serious and loud self-criticism
    would have been necessary, we haven’t heard such self-criticism yet.
    3. ( Let us assume that this claim is right…), of corse here, we can think of the huge number of prisoners of conscience who just want to express themselves and move freely, to publish their ideas and to see reasonable politics(projects) implemented in their countries and dont necessarily seek power.
    4. (I think the west is fighting the right enemy on the wrong front): the enemy meant here is the ignorance produced by the dictators over dicades. We have first to remove the dictators,in one way or another, then we can start teaching people the language of this 21th century, and that is the modern western way, the way the western people are educated, and that is their way of life , their only way to survive. Instead of promoting democracy ( freedom of speach, human rights, etc.), now we can see a comeback of dictatorships( doing business with the dictators, wondering the lifestyle of the dictators, awarding them, etc) . The west must decide whether it wants to survive or not. this is the crucial quetion that the west should answer. What does make the west attractive ? Some might say: the wealth, blonde girls with blue eyes, Hoolywood movies ? superficially:yes. I think the important things, that I particularly abrecieate, are democracy, the achieved human and civilian rights, the cultural and scientific heritage,opening,transparency(although this has been seen since September 11th by many western people as vulnerable point ),the rational thinking way, and, of corse, the emotional side. I think that their are many people in the Muslim and Arabic world who appreciate those western things too. The dictators look at all this, in the west allready experienced things, as somethig abstract or kind of intellectual intertainment.
    5.( the former colonial ), and meanwhile hated (west might lose).

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