The problem with Africans and Arabs

Published on Pambazuka News, by Elleni Centime Zeleke, March 17, 2011.

The North African revolts have seen Arab countries portrayed as somehow separate from the rest of Africa. Elleni Centime Zeleke critiques the trend and exposes in whose interests it works … //

… Moreover, to call one’s self Black or African or Arab is to use identity markers that are not indigenous to Africans or even the vast majority of people we now call Arab. The question then is: who uses these identities and when? No doubt, mobilising these identities can be useful for making certain kinds of political claims that advance the needs of African and Arab peoples. But still, we need to always ask for whom is this mobilisation happening.

Cutting off the historical ties between so-called Arabs and so-called Africans (by which we mean Black people, as if those kinds of people are easily identifiable) is a trick of Orientalist historiography. And, as the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said has taught us, Orientalism is a Western style of thought first invented in the 18th century that was used to ‘dominate, restructure and have authority’ over the area we now call the Middle East.

The problem with this style of thought is that it posits Arabs and Africans as having fixed and distinct qualities that mark them off as different from both Europeans as well as each other. So investigating the problem of Orientalist methodology is not just about raising the bogeyman of identity politics; rather, if we don’t, what ends up happening is that Orientalist methods are often blindly adopted to conceal the multiple historical, political, and economic ties that connect so-called Black people to browner looking people … //

… What this means is that we cannot reference abstract identities like ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ as if they are outside real political and economic processes. And since the transformation of Egypt into a modern nation-state is intimately tied to its ‘African’ developmental trajectories we need to name it as such.

It should also be noted that in large measure because Mohammed Ali’s industrialisation of Egypt ended up as a failed project, from the 1870’s until 1952 Mohammed Ali’s offspring were forced to rule Sudan and Egypt with the English in what was known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. It was not until Nasser’s free-officer revolution in Egypt in 1952 that we really saw the end of Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In fact Nasser’s regime was an attempt to resolve the contradictions of the developmental trajectories set in place by Mohammed Ali, his offspring and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium – the promise of nationalism of course being that you could democratise development on behalf of all of the nation’s people. But as such, Egyptian independence was always tied to a very ambivalent relationship to Sudan and vice-versa.

Importantly, then, if this present revolution is not going to simply sink back into neo-liberal hell we need to seriously think through Egypt’s regional political and economic formation. This is particularly the case since Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat (Egypt’s president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981) and Hosni Mubarak (who succeeded Sadat and against whom the Egyptian people took to the streets) are also failed attempts at speaking to the very same developmental patterns that have historical roots and that Nasser tried to address.

Moreover, the revolution in present day Egypt not only signals the failure of post-colonial arrangements, but it also signals the failure of a third world project that Nasser articulated in tandem with people like Kwame Nkrumah and Josip Tito. Partly this project failed because it was elitist, but more importantly that elitism failed to interrogate national developmental trajectories and to build a truly inclusive popular nationalism (as our friend Frantz Fanon might say).

In the case of Libya, then, we should be aware that Gadaffi was a major player in African politics. So much so that he nearly convinced the African Union (AU) to move the seat of the organisation to Libya. But again his involvement in politics was not just symbolic; Gadaffi’s money and weapons are involved in nearly every major conflict on the continent of Africa from Sierra-Leone to the conflicts in Chad and Sudan. The political economy of Libya is also such that it relies on the importation of large amounts of migrant labourers from the African continent as well as South Asia.

Historically, of course, Tripoli was also an important destination in the trans-Saharan trade routes (whose starting point lay in the forest regions of ‘darkest’ Africa) bringing important trading goods to Libya that were then exported to the Mediterranean world and beyond. These historical ties are what Gadaffi himself has mobilised in justification for why the AU should be based in Libya.

In contrast to this, in the media coverage that has reported on the use of paid African mercenaries brought into fire on the anti-Gadaffi protestors, we have been led to believe that there is a yawning gap between ‘Black’ mercenaries and the rest of civilised Libya. But, the claim about the use of Black African mercenaries should be viewed with caution. After all, the constitution of Libya outside of an African context is an Orientalist fallacy (and fantasy) that obscures the real histories of these places and can only play to a violently racist hand.

A few nights ago someone suggested to me that what tied Arabs together was a shared language and culture. But spoken Arabic is not always intelligible to other Arabic speakers. In Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia other linguistic practices exist which help form the locally spoken Arabic, but also remind us of other kinds of historical and cultural connections that make up these places (too diverse and complicated to get into now). I also remember being schooled by an Egyptian in Cairo, about why Egyptians are not Arabs. So again, I would venture to say things are complicated and this is not just a matter of identity politics. Instead, it seems that the Afro-centrics speak a kernel of truth when they state that present historical methods tend to elide the myriad Afro-Arab connections.

However, because the Afro-centrics are an African-American school of thought and because they refuse to periodise their claims about the historical formation of race in different places, they end up making sweeping statements that projects American cultural history on to the rest of the world. Can we really accept the claim that an inherently racist attitude towards Black people is constitutive of an Arab or Islamic identity in the way it is for white people in the Americas? Yet, just because such a claim seems implausible it should not make it easy for us to dismiss the point that we need to pay attention to the way race has been operationalised in the framing of the present North African revolutions.

Indeed, because I don’t want to go Afro-centric, I think it is better if we think through the production of contradictory histories. So, while I would suggest that we need to not rewrite the history of the world as a footnote to America’s cultural wars, at the same time, we need to see that the rest of the world has increasingly come to see itself in highly racialised terms. This too needs to be explained, but I would suggest that we probably should not turn to the use of cultural categories such as Arab or Islam to explain the rise of a notion of ‘Arab’ that is distinct from ‘African’. Instead we want to link these identities back to political-economy. But for now we also need to take seriously the kernel of protest and truth that the Afro-centric folks speak about and build on it. Race does lie at the heart of many of these so-called Arab revolutions in very complicated ways. Let’s not sweep this under the carpet in the name of self-righteous indignation or else we will add one more substantive reason for why these revolutions might come to naught. (full long text).

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