Are We Racist? Today's Arabs And The Sudanese Colours

07 July 2010

By Osman Mirghani

Over the past few days I have observed the statements and reactions to what was published regarding Sudanese migrants in Lebanon being subject to physical and verbal attacks at the hands of members of the Lebanese General Security, and the racist terms that they used against these Sudanese migrants who were arrested when a party they were attending was raided. These Sudanese migrants were later transferred to a police station after suspicions were raised that some of them may have been residing in Lebanon illegally. Although it is important to look at the formal statements issued by officials from both countries, it is even more important to follow up on the opinions of ordinary people and their messages commenting on this news report, as this allows us to transcend angry feelings and read between the lines. Accusations of racism are sometimes swept under the carpet, because we avoid wading into discussions such as this in an explicit or courageous manner.

It may not be appropriate here to discuss the veracity of the accusations that were made by the Sudanese migrants who were detained in Lebanon, or to deny these accusations according to the statements that were made by officials in the Lebanese General Security. However we must say that scenes of Lebanese security officers beating protesters who have taken to the streets on various occasions in the past to demonstrate against certain conditions lend support to the complaints of the Sudanese detainees that they were mistreated and humiliated. If the issue was simply of mistreatment, it would have been possible to say that the security forces in many countries around the world suffer from the violent and cruel tendencies by some of its members. Of course, this does not represent a public trend or an official policy, but the problem here lies in the bigoted terms that were used to insult the color of the detainee's skin, or their Arabic dialect.

There are manifestations of racism in our society whose existence we deny, either through ignorance, or indifference, or because we do not believe that what is being said or done could be hurtful, offensive, or humiliating to others. Of course there is racist behavior that some may display in order to demonstrate their feelings of superiority or to demonstrate their contempt and disdain for others. This has nothing to do with this incident in particular, and is something that is not just found in Lebanon, for there are a number of phenomenon's that indicate the presence of discrimination amongst different components of our society, and illustrate practices that do not go beyond any simple definition of racism. One needs only to look at the jokes that are occasionally circulated, which mock certain groups or races in order to quickly see that we do practice discrimination, even if unintentionally. Perhaps what is worth mentioning here is that even those Sudanese migrants who are now complaining about what happened in Beirut have forgotten that similar practices are taking place within their own country, whether against the people of the south or the west. The irony is that the recent incident took place in a country whose expatriate population is larger than its domestic population; therefore Lebanon should be more sympathetic to the "emigrants" who are living there.

Some of those who responded to the incident of the Sudanese migrants in Lebanon raised the question of; who is an Arab anyway? What is it that unites Arabs, is it race, or color, or language that counts? If we are to talk about race, this would mean that the Arab identity would be restricted to those who descend from a few well-known Arab tribes, and this would exclude many from Lebanon to Sudan, and from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and from Egypt to Iraq, especially as our countries today include different nationalities, races, and religions, from Kurds to Cops, and from Armenians to Imazighen. While if the talk is about skin color; then is this white, or brown, or black, as our societies are a blend of all of these colors? If we said that skin color is an indication of Arab identity, then a number of countries would need to be excluded from the Arab League, while others countries would need to be divided. There are of course those who say that an Arab is anybody who speaks the Arabic language, because it is the Arabic language and culture that brings together the different components of Arab countries. Islam is even wider than this for it brings together Arabs and non-Arabs, and extends far beyond the borders of the Arab world.

The controversy and debate surrounding who is an Arab is much deeper than all of this, and there is not enough space here to accommodate all the disparate opinions and old debates surrounding this issue. However, regardless of the degree of agreement of disagreement over this particular issue, many people believe the principle that identity is based upon a sense of belonging, which is something that makes it possible for disparities and differences between components of any group or society to be overcome. This sense of belonging would be further strengthened if we discussed and dealt with our failures and social problems without equivocation, and this includes aspects of racism and discrimination that we deny or try to avoid discussing, let alone resolving. Failure to confront such problems weakens the structure of the Arab world, which is already suffering from numerous cracks and splits.





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