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One of the least known aspects of the current Libyan conflict is its brutal, racial component. Media reports claim Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is using black African mercenaries in his war against the rebels. In retaliation, the insurgents have targeted in violent attacks African immigrant workers living in Libya, from whom, the rebels believe, Gaddafi is recruiting his mercenaries. Before the uprising began, an estimated 1.5 million Africans resided in Libya, many as low-paid labourers, but the violence has caused a large number to flee the country or to go into hiding.
Beatings, kidnappings, robbery and even executions are among the crimes the rebels are accused of committing against immigrant Africans and suspected black mercenaries. Videos have emerged showing the rebels’ irrational and inhuman cruelty towards Africans. One is of a beheading in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold, of a blood-covered man “suspended upside-down.” Hundreds of onlookers are cheering and filming the savagery to shouts of “Allahu Akbar.” One is heard commenting on the victim’s African looks. Another video shows an alleged African mercenary being mercilessly beaten.
“Thousands of Africans have come under attack and lost their homes and possessions during the recent fighting,” a human rights official told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of Africans have been caught up in this mercenary hysteria.”
But another, more sinister motive lurks behind the current rebel “African hunt” than just Gaddafi’s disturbing use of African mercenaries to put down the rebellion. The ferocious animosity Libyan rebels are showing toward black Africans is actually rooted in a deeply embedded, centuries-old Arab racism the war has inflamed.
This racism has its roots in the institution of Islamic slavery. From the seventh century to the twentieth, it is estimated 14 million black Africans were violently enslaved and transported under harsh conditions to countries around the Islamic world. Due to the blackness of the slave’s skin combined with his menial work and chattel status, Africans became synonymous in Arab eyes with inferiority and even something less than human. And since the Islamic world experienced no abolition movement, let alone a civil war like America’s, that attempted to establish the black slave’s humanity, he continued to remain sub-human in the Arab world view — as Africans today often point out.
One of these Africans is Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In her highly acclaimed book, Infidel, Ali experienced the Arabs’ persistent and dehumanizing racist attitude toward black Africans and its Islamic slavery base when attending school in Saudi Arabia. Her Egyptian teacher, Ali recounts, would always hit her, the only African child in the class, with a ruler, calling her “aswad abda,” black slave-girl. Ali writes: “To be a foreigner (in Saudi Arabia), and moreover a black foreigner, meant, you were scarcely human, unprotected: fair game.”
Even the word Arabs use today for black Africans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is ‘abeed’, or slave. Besides serving as an Arab insult for Africans, this derogatory term reflects the thinking on the part of some Arabs that blacks are still fit only for slavery.
The treatment of Africans in other Arab countries besides Saudi Arabia almost corresponds to that of an “abeed.” African columnist Naiwu Osahon writes: “In Algeria, Arabs throw stones at black people, including diplomats, in market places.”
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