For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.
This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.
I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.
Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.
Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.
It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.
To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link
Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)
Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)
“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)
Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)
Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page
Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online
Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)
You can compare Libya’s Gaddafi to Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak but for those of you who are “anti-imperialists” there is a particularly disturbing lesson here because Gaddafi was supposed to be “one of the good guys”.
Unlike the cases of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the case of Gaddafi really bothers me because it is clear that he has been, and continues to be, protected by some sort of Anti-Imperialist Old Boys Club who talk about justice but don’t seem to actually want to hold themselves or their parties or their “brother leaders” accountable for following it.
It’s easy to point fingers as Western Imperialists but if you can’t be accountable to your own people you are just as bad, perhaps even worst, because you came to power claiming to bring justice and go around the world saying you and your governments are examples to follow!!!
Gaddafi was/is often touted by the left as the Fidel Castro of the Middle East. He saw himself as a natural successor to Nasser‘s vision of Pan-Arabism. He used Libya’s oil money to support groups fighting for self-determination (such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the African National Congress (ANC).
Nelson Mandela was instrumental in helping Gaddafi resolve the Lockerbie Affair and regain easy relations with countries like Britain and the United States. Mandela shrugged off criticisms within South Africa and internationally, particularly from the United States, when he reached out to Gaddafi. He had this to say to his critics: “Those who say I should not be here are without morals. This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.” Clearly, Mandela’s support of Gaddafi is linked to Gaddafi’s support for the ANC during the Apartheid era.
Mandela was the first award winner of the Al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 1989, an annual prize founded by Gaddafi himself (Other recipients include Lous Farrakhan, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Turkey’s Erdogan). Mandela returned the gesture by bestowing one of South Africa’s highest honours, the Order of Good Hope, on Gaddafi in 1997.
Gaddafi turned away from Pan-Arabism (mainly because most Arab Nations couldn’t be bothered with his nonsense nor could they be manipulated by him because they had their own oil money) to Pan-Africanism (African countries are much poorer and lacked as much oil money and therefore were ripe for manipulation) He proposed the idea of the United States of Africa. The extent to which Gaddafi has been involved in financing conflicts in Africa is truly horrifying (Chad, Niger, Uganda, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo)
David Maynier of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to South Africa’s ruling Part the African National Congress (ANC) has accused the South African government of having sold sniper rifles to Libya, although South Africa’s Minister of Defense and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu denies this.
Allegedly, African Mercenaries have been flown into Libya to attack protesters. Who are these African Mercenaries? The question might be asked “Aren’t Libyans Africans? That depends on who you ask. Often when the term African is used it means “Sub-Saharan” African ergo Black-Skinned. The fact that Gaddafi has many Sub-Saharan African Mercenaries at his disposal should come as no surprise. Such mercenaries have been trained in camps funded by the Libya Government across Sub-Saharan Africa. As Jose Gomez del Prado with the United Nations Human Rights Council states:
You can find, particularly in Africa, many people who’ve been in wars for many years. They don’t know anything else. They are cheap labour, ready to take the job for little money. They are trained killers.
But it’s important to not dehumanize these “mercenaries”. One of the central characters in Nigerian author Helon Habila’s novel Measuring Time is one of these mercenaries. He begins as just a young man looking to escape the dead-end poverty of life in his small village in Nigeria. He joins a Libyan-funded training camp and eventually ends up as a mercenary in Liberia. There, his conscience shaken to the core, he finds redemption. However, the poverty of these mercenaries doesn’t justify their violence against Libyans.
What really worries me is that preexisting prejudices against Blacks in Libya, given the long history of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, will erupt in violence against innocent Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya who already face discrimination and harassment. In 2000, violence against Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers by Libyan Citizens left allegedly 135 people dead. In an interview with the LA Times in 2000, one Ghanaian migrant worker had this to say about Gaddafi and the Libyan people:
“President Kadafi has a good idea, but his people don’t like blacks, and they don’t think they are Africans because of their skin color,” said Kwame Amponsah, 22. He spent three months in Libya before fleeing in October, returning to Ghana’s poor southwestern agricultural Brong-Ahafo region. As many as 80% of the nation’s returnees hail from this area, according to authorities.
Currently, the number of Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers living in Libya is estimated at over 1 million (Libya has a population of over 6 million). They often work in sectors such as construction and agriculture.
I pray for the freedom of Libya’s people and the safety and security of the migrant workers living there.
WikiLeaks cables: A guide to Gaddafi’s ‘famously fractious’ family (2011 article in The Guardian available online)
Gaddafi Urges Pan-African State (2007 article from BBC News available online)
Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights Website
Human Rights Watch: Libya: Security Forces Kill 84 Over Three Days
Gaddafi and Mandela: Brother Leaders
Mandela Welcomes Brother Leader Gaddafi (article from BBC News available online)
Strategic Moral diplomacy: Mandela, Qaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2005 essay University of South California)
A Medal of Good Hope: Mandela, Gaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2004 essay from the University of Southern California)
Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya
Migrant Workers from Ghana Flee Libya, Cite Racism (LA Times article 2000 available online)
Libya`s post-sanctions boom makes it African El Dorado (2009 article available online)
Has Gaddafi unleashed a mercenary force on Libya? by David Smith (2011 article from The Guardian available online)
Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends by Hein de Haas (2006 article available online)
The Arab population of Ottawa, according to the 2006 Census, is 45,245, making them one of Ottawa’s largest racialized communities. The vast majority of Ottawa’s Arab population originate from Lebanon. Many of Ottawa’s Arabs are youth. In the wake of the recent revolutions sweeping the Arab World, which includes countries in Africa, I’ve felt like reflecting on these revolutions and their impact on Ottawa’s Arab communities, particularly its youth.
Let’s start with Tunisia. Tunisia, if people in the West even knew about this small North African country with its great beaches, had been perceived as relatively stable and peaceful and there wasn’t much concern for its politics as long as they weren’t Islamist. I only learned about Tunisia when I befriended a family of Tunisian political refugees who were living in my neighbourhood about ten years ago. I have come to consider them my chosen family and over the course of our friendship I had to research evidence of political persecution of Opposition party members and their families in Tunisia in order to support their Refugee claim. I once even attended a forum organized by other Tunisian political dissidents with members of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament Hill. But the impact of Tunisia’s political oppression wasn’t brought home to me by any of this. It was the poetry of the eldest daughter’s of this family, who had spent most of her life in exile from her homeland. Since she was a child she would write poetry and hip hop verses about social justice, her uncle who was a political prisoner in Tunisia, and her hope for the country’s future. I always thought that this was heavy stuff for such a young girl to write about, but as I came to know more families in Ottawa’s Arab communities, I realized that many of Ottawa’s Arab youth were highly aware of the political oppression and lack of economic opportunities that led to their parents choosing to raise them in Canada.
Although the root causes of revolution in Tunisia were high unemployment, rising inflation of food prices, government corruption, and the often violent suppression of freedom of speech and political opposition groups, it appears that the revolution in Tunisia was sparked, literally, by the self-immolation of a street vendor from the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th 2010 (He would eventually die from his injuries on January 4th 2011). Mohamed Bouazizi had tried to complain to government authorities after being beaten and having his wares confiscated by local police but the governor refused to listen to him so Bouazizi, after stating that if no one would speak to him he would set himself on fire, went out, got some accelerant (it’s not clear whether it was gasoline or paint thinner) and set himself on fire in front of a local government building. The Tunisian revolution began with protests in Sidi Bouzid, as friends and family, outraged by the events the precipitated Bouazizi’s death, began to protest. Eventually, these protests moved into more cosmopolitan centres in the country, eventually leading to President Ben Ali, who had been President of Tunisia since November 1987, when he took power from then President Habib Bourguiba (who himself had been in power since 1957!) in a bloodless coup d’état, to flee from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia (That brings to mind another alleged African dictator who retired to Saudi Arabia…Idi Amin).
In Cairo, a 49 year old restaurant owner Abdo Abdel Hameed was driven to commit suicide by setting fire to himself in front of the Egyptian Parliament after the government denied him Bread Coupons. He died on January 17th. For those who have watched 26 year old Egyptian activist and protest organizer Asmaa Mahfouz’ impassioned Video Blog, recorded and posted on her Facebook on January 18th, which subsequently went viral, you know that Hameed’s death was driving force for her. But Asmaa wasn’t new to activism, as she is also a member of the Egyptian Facebook Group the April 6th Youth Movement and this Facebook Group is all about Action.
According to the 2006 Census for Ottawa-Gatineau there are 3, 580 Egyptians in Ottawa. Relatively more affluent and highly educated than Ottawa’s other Arab communities, I was curious to see how they might end up calling on the Canadian government to support the revolution (although I also knew that not all of Ottawa’s Egyptians supported seeing him go.) At the beginning of January, the community felt the effects of the Alexandria Church Bombing, which killed 21 people and wounded 80. Father Shenouda Boutros, leader of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church which is only a few blocks up the road from where I live, had grown up attending the Alexandria Church and was later a priest there. Local Coptic Churches held commemorations for those who were killed and expressed concern that copycat attacks might be made on their churches, concerns with the Ottawa Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Government took quite seriously.
Then the revolution came. A major Egyptian Gala was cancelled as community members felt it was inappropriate to have a big luxurious party while the country was in turmoil. I became curious to know what was happening on the ground in Egypt. I contacted Ottawa-born Iraqi-Canadian Associated Press journalist Hadeel Al-Shalchi (We know each other from high school) to see if she was alright. I checked up on Friends, Egyptian and Somali who had family living in Cairo. I read Facebook posts from Sarah Ghabrial about her mother, a Copt doctor’s, experiences helping the wounded in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square). I got an e-mail from a well-known Ottawa Egyptian community organizer asking for people to prey for her son who had decided to drop everything and jump on a plane to Egypt to join the protesters in Tahrir Square…she was both scared for and proud of him.
I wanted to know what some key Egyptian Intellectuals I follow felt about the revolution. Given Western perceptions of Mubarak’s regime somehow being a bastion for women’s rights in the face of the menace of the Muslim Brotherhood (as if that was the only Egyptian Oppostion Party), I was eager to hear from Nawal el Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist who had been imprisoned under Sadat and highly censored under Mubarak. I was surprised to learn that at 80, she was still as mad as ever and attending protests in Tahrir Square. In a telephone interview with journalist Sholeh Irani, el Saadawi had this to say about people’s fears of fundamentalists taking over Egypt:
We are not afraid of Islamic fundamentalists. You must know that millions of men and women are on the streets. It is not about right or left, about Islamists or any other political movement. People are frustrated about poverty and Mubarak’s regime. No political party has started this revolt. This is a spontaneous movement. But all political movements are trying to be part of it now. Now when people are out bringing a change, both right and left want to join. People have finally taken to streets to cry in unison demanding freedom, social justice, integrity, independence and equality. What is going on now is a movement that belongs to the young people and nobody else.
I then went looking for interviews and articles by Gamal Nkrumah, the son of Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah and his Copt Egyptian wife Fathia Rizk. Gamal is the International Affairs Editor of Al Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s leading English-Language Newspaper. I found an interview with him from Voice of America on January 31st 2011 in which he seemed pessimistic about the prospects of Mubarak stepping down. After Mubarak stepped down, Gamal wrote an interesting article in Al Ahram reflecting on the possibilities of Egypt after Mubarak:
Egypt is a country now poised to find itself in fresh diplomatic stand-offs with old foes, Israel for instance. Two questions arise. Can the Egyptian economy pivot quickly to find new sources of growth other than tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal? For Egypt to play a greater economic role in Africa, the democratically elected government resulting from people power will have to make a concerted drive on a series of structural reforms. It will also hark back to the days when as a new focus on Egypt’s traditional post-1952 Revolution role as a pioneer of African liberation, a trendsetter of revolution and anti-imperialism.
He goes on to quote Fidel Castro:
By the end of World War II, Egypt was under the brilliant governance of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who together with Jawaharal Nehru, heir of Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré — African leaders who together with Sukarno, then president of the recently liberated Indonesia — created the Non- Aligned Movement of countries and advanced the struggle for independence in the former colonies,” commented Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. “The death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser on 28 September 1970 was an irreversible setback for Egypt.
Considering that Castro himself could easily be considered a dictator, I find his inclusion in this article as a champion of anti-imperialism funny but not surprising given Gamal Nkrumah’s pedigree. He quotes other Western political leaders including President Barack Obama who had this to say about the January 25th Revolution:
Egyptians have inspired us. They have done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.
I was most interested in what he had to say about Mubarak’s relationship with Sudan’s Al-Bashir. Considering that the January 25th Revolution followed closely after the referendum of Southern Sudanese who have chosen to secede from Northern Sudan, offering another example of an oppressed people fighting and winning their right to self-determination, I’m surprised that Egypt’s relationship with Sudan hasn’t been discussed more in the media :
It is no secret that there was little love lost between President Al-Bashir of Sudan and ex-president Mubarak. The latter suspected Al-Bashir’s connivance in the failed assassination attempt on Mubarak during a state visit to Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit. Al-Bashir also privately accused Mubarak’s regime of tacit complicity in the secession of South Sudan. Numerous Sudanese suspected that Egypt’s failure to play a positive and decisive role in Nile Basin politics in the past three decades and its wishy-washy and pussy-footed attitude towards intervention in domestic Sudanese political affairs led to the country’s break-up. Few in Sudan regret Mubarak’s demise. The consensus among African leaders is that they should support his departure from the continent’s political arena.
Despite all this, I got most of my information about the Egyptian Revolution from the Facebook Posts of my young Arab Facebook Friends. Many Canadian Arab youth, no matter how long they have lived in Canada, follow Arab Media sites and have connections with friends and family members who still live in their home countries, so their sources of information on events in the Arab World are far more diverse and can range from a CNN report by Anderson Cooper to an in interview on Al Jazeera by Riz Khan, to a blog post by their cousin Mo, to a video recored on a cellphone by their sister Fatima. And just as I was able to learn from these posts, so were other Facebook Friends. Although I think the idea of a Twitter Revolution is highly overrated, I don’t underestimate the power of friendships, real friendships to change global opinion. The fact that Ottawa has so many Arabs, many of them youth, has and will continue to effects the perceptions of the Arab World in this city. The generation of young people who attend high schools-both English and French as Ottawa’s Arabs, like Ottawa’s Africans, often bridge the Two Linguistic Solitudes of this city-and post-secondary institutions with Arab youth, they will come to learn their stories, their parents’ stories, and their perspectives on political and economic issues in the Arab World.
Needless to say, my chosen Tunisian family is overjoyed with the ouster of Ben Ali, and the mother and eldest daughter can be seen protesting in solidarity with other Arab communities as they demonstrate on behalf of democracy in their respective countries. At a recent protest organized by local Libyans, the eldest daughter wore the Tunisian flag as a cape.
What next? Who knows? One thing is for sure, the West’s perceptions of the Arab World have changed forever, Egyptian Youth, hijabs and all, just got touted as The Generation Changing the World in Time Magazine. Arab youth changing the world? I wonder what that could mean for the City of Ottawa?
How a Single Match Can Ignite a Revolution by Robert F. Worth (article from The New York Times available online)
The Power of One by Ben Macintyre (article from The Ottawa Citizen)
The Famous Video Blog available online
Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz in The New York Times available online
Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz available online
Coptic parish unites after attack in Egypt by J. Lafaro (article from Metro News available online)
Ottawa Coptic Events Cut Short Over Boming CBC News article available online
Room for religion and rights article available online by Gamal Nkrumah in response to the Alexandria Church Bombing
Egypt’s New Era: Copts Hope for More Freedom, video report by Al Jazeera available online
In Tahrir Square (article available online)
Interview (2011) with Rebecca Walker available online
Interview (2011) with Democracy Now! available online
Video Interview (2011) with Riz Khan on Al Jazeerha available online
Video Interview (2011) with Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times available online
Interview (2011) by Sholeh Irani available online
Room for religion and rights (article available online)
World of Words (article available online)
Undying Legacy: Reflections 40 Years After Nasser’s Passing (article available online)
Interview (2011) with Voice of America