Although a reawakened Arab nationalism “represents a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism,” the conflict in Libya dramatically exposes an “endemic” racism in the North African Maghreb. This racism “is not just against other Africans, meaning non-Libyan Africans, but also within Libya itself." Its manifestations are immediately recognizable to African Americans.
Race and Arab Nationalism in Libya
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
”The Sudanese, the Chadians were massacred. We saw it ourselves.”
U.S. corporate media are sure about certain things in Libya, and admit total ignorance of others – which makes for an uninspiring mix. They are sure that Muamar Khadafi is hated by the vast majority of the Libyan people, whose sentiments, the western media all but unanimously believe, are expressed by the “rebels” that have taken Benghazi and other major cities. These same media, including correspondents that spend literally all their waking moments chronicling the rebels’ every move and utterance, have no inkling of the politics that animates these people, beyond opposition to the regime and an undeniable Arab and Libyan nationalism.
What has become apparent from reports filtering out of the country is that many of the 1.5 million black African migrant workers trapped in Libya feel themselves under racial siege, hunted by what Black Americans would immediately recognize as lynch mobs – “pogrom” is another word that springs to mind – especially in the rebel-held areas.
The testimony of black African victims is most disturbing. "We were being attacked by local people who said that we were mercenaries killing people. Let me say that they did not want to see black people," 60-year-old Julius Kiluu, an African building supervisor, told Reuters. Even in Tripoli, where the regime is not in full control of neighborhoods, Somalis told journalists they were “being hunted on suspicion of being mercenaries” and “feel trapped and frightened to go out.” Ethiopians told of being “dragged from their apartments, beaten up and showed to the world as mercenaries.” Ethiopian News and Opinions reported that “Muammar Gadhafi haters are taking revenge on black Africans for money Gadhafi threw for many African dictators. The mob attacked and killed many Africans including Ethiopians for being only black.”
“Black African migrant workers trapped in Libya feel themselves under racial siege, hunted by what Black Americans would immediately recognize as lynch mobs.”
A Turkish oil worker told National Public Radio’s West African reporter Ofeibea Quist Arcton:
“We left behind our friends from Chad. We left behind their bodies. We had 70 or 80 people from Chad working for our company. They cut them dead with pruning shears and axes, attacking them, saying you're providing troops for Gadhafi. The Sudanese, the Chadians were massacred. We saw it ourselves.”
An Associated Press report described 20 men held as “mercenaries” in a Benghazi jail cell, “looking disheveled and frightened.” Outside, “three effigies were hanging from lampposts and flagpoles – all depicting mercenaries.” A spokesman for the local rebel organizing committee said, “If people knew they were up there, they would tear down the door." He was clearly describing a lynch mob. But these men were “simply ordinary African workers who got caught up in the middle of this chaos," according to to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who met with them.
A Time Magazine story described videos that
“…show the bodies of several dead, black African men killed by the protestors, including the corpses of two men being paraded on the hood of a car and driven through a crowd of demonstrators in al-Baida. Another video shows a black African man, who has been caught by the demonstrators, being hit and punched. A protestor asks: ‘Who is giving you orders?’ The man replies: ‘They come from up high. I swear, I swear...orders, orders.’ The protestor asks: ‘They told you to fire at us?’ The man replies: ‘Yes, yes.’"
But a man calling himself Fazzani told France 24 International News:
“I am very sorry to see these clips. One of the guys in the seen [sic] is black Libyan ‘not from other African countries.’ His family lives in EL Mansoura village in Elwadi shatty district about 200 KM from Borack Ashhati. (Borack AL Shatty is about 700KM south of Tripoli). I have not got permission to put his name here. Hope his family will see this and they will clarify.”
Fazzani described himself as a “Disappointed Black Libyan.” He added a “few facts” of Libyan life:
“Most of the residents of Fezzan (Southern part of Libya) are black skinned. Try to find photo of Libyan Embassordor [sic] to UN Mr Abdelrahman Shalgam (Is he mercenary?) Try to see photo of Top man of Gaddafi's Information office director (Bashir Saleh), he is more dark skinned than Nelson Mandela, does that mean he is a mercenary from Africa? I am not trying to be a racist but just to clarify few facts.”
“Racially motivated lynch mobs all act alike.”
Any American – any Black American – can recognize the pattern of racial lynch law that treats all black Africans as alien, potential enemies. Racially motivated lynch mobs all act alike. Libyan Arab mobs can no more be defended as acting upon special, exigent circumstances (the mercenary “threat”) than their American counterparts, who always had a ready excuse for their gruesome predations (Black crime, lust for white women, theft of white jobs, whatever).
The Christian Science Monitor, in typical obfuscatory fashion, manages to convey useful information under a largely misleading headline: “How Qaddafi Helped Fuel Fury Towards Africans in Libya.”
“I think that there are levels of racism within Libyan society that are quite problematic. But racism is not just against other Africans, meaning non-Libyan Africans, but also within Libya itself," Na'eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, told CSM. Another Johannesburg-based researcher, Issaka Souare, says that Libyans (presumably, those who are lighter-skinned) may perceive Qaddafi as favoring the darker-skinned (and less developed) south of the country, and resent his self-proclaimed “Pan-Africanism.” Such sentiments are familiar to Black American ears, echoes of U.S. whites with the words “reverse racism” dripping from their twisted lips.
Hussein Zachariah, a metal worker for a Turkish construction company, told of traveling by car with another Ghanaian and two Chadians to the Egyptian border, after an anti-Khadafi mob burned their migrant compound and all their belongings. The Chadians were forced out of the vehicle at an opposition roadblock, while the Ghanaians were allowed to continue their exit. Many Libyans, CSM explained, resent people from Chad because “Qaddafi has a known history of lavishing the nation's wealth to build connections” with leaders of his southern neighbor. The fate of Mr. Zachariah’s Chadian co-workers is unknown. Hopefully, it was not the same as the “70 or 80” Chadian employees of a Turkish construction company whose slaughter was recounted to National Public Radio’s Ofeibea Quist Arcton.
“He was often pelted with rocks and called a ‘slave’ by Libyans on the streets during his three years working in Benghazi.”
Like virtually all black African migrants, Zachariah says he was often pelted with rocks and called a “slave” by Libyans on the streets during his three years working in Benghazi. The Arabic term is “abd,” which means one who is subordinated, a servant or slave, but is deployed with the same contempt as “nigger” in the mouths of American racists. Khadafi’s “mercenaries” are no more to blame for Libya’s latest paroxysm of anti-black violence than African American boxer Jack Johnson was responsible for the outbreak of deadly white riots after Johnson beat the Great White Hope, James Jeffries, in 1910. The underlying cause was racism, not the immediate event. Anti-black African riots claimed at least 150 lives in Libya in 2000, with no marauding black “mercenaries” as an excuse.
Col. Khadafi has also played the “race card” in efforts to forestall European intervention in the Libyan conflict – the same tactic he used to cement business and diplomatic ties on the other side of the Mediterranean. As the Huffington Post reported, March 3:
“In his speech, Gadhafi lashed out against the freezing of his and other Libyan assets abroad and efforts by Europe to send aid to opposition-held Benghazi. In a pointed message to Europe, he warned, ‘There will be no stability in the Mediterranean if there is no stability in Libya.’
"’Africans will march to Europe without anyone to stop them. The Mediterranean will become a center for piracy like Somalia,’ he said. Gadhafi's regime has worked closely with Italy and other European countries to stop African migrants who use Libya as a launching point to slip into Europe.”
“The Mediterranean will become a center for piracy like Somalia,” Col. Khadafi said.”
The Arab re-awakening, as I recently remarked, “will be plagued by fits and starts and disappointments and tragedies – but it cannot be rolled back.” In the turmoil, what is also re-awakened – or never really dormant – is a “problematic” form of anti-black racism that appears, at least in some parts of the North African Maghreb, endemic and woven into the fabric of Arab nationalism.
The (re)emergence of Arab nationalism nevertheless represents a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism, which abhors all nationalisms except its own as it seeks to bend every national aspiration to the will of capital and its war machinery. However, the racism that is clearly manifest in Libya’s current dynamic is also a huge impediment to pan-African solidarity, inviting new waves of imperial mischief on the continent. On that score, we should have no illusions.