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.”
“In Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Mauritania and the rest of the Arab world, Africans are treated like scum,” Osahon continues. “…Blacks in those countries cannot aspire to positions of respect or authority. There are hardly any Africans in high government positions in Arab governed countries…It is simply a way of life that’s all. Blacks do not really exist or at best are not human.”
But Arab racism today takes its strongest and cruelest form towards Africans in the form of the slave trade. In Mauritania, for example, slavery has been abolished about six times, but everything stays the same. An estimated 500,000 Africans still remain the property of Arab masters. Sudan also saw several hundred thousand black Africans enslaved in southern Sudan by northern Arabs during the jihad that lasted from 1989 until President Bush negotiated a peace agreement in 2005.
One of these “abeed,” Francis Bok, was captured as a seven-year-old boy in a slave raid. Bok served a brutal Arab master for ten years before escaping and eventually making his way to freedom in the United States.
“They (the Arabs) attacked villages of the south with the kind of ferocity and cruelty that only religion can inspire, enslaving and killing people like me and my family as if we were not human,” Bok wrote in his memoir, Escape From Slavery.
Yemen and Mali also have slave trades. In northern Mali, the Berber-descended Touareg tribe has black slaves it has inherited “from one generation to the next.” In Yemen’s interior, tribes there also possess African slaves. Again, some are descendants of “abeed” bought generations ago, while others are recent arrivals. In Mali, the government has signed international agreements on slavery but with little obvious effect.
And this abomination of Islamic slavery, upon which Arab racism rests, will be difficult to eradicate. It is an ingrained, centuries-old institution that is also legal under sharia law and, according to historian Bernard Lewis, “elaborately regulated.” The case of Cairo University professor Dr. Abu Zayd, an Islamic theologian, indicates the dangers and complications of challenging sharia law’s slavery provisions. When Zayd contended that “keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims” was contrary to Islam, he was declared an apostate and a sharia court forcibly divorced him from his wife. He later fled to Europe to escape Islamic extremists who now wanted to kill him because of his apostate status.
The current “mercenary hysteria” does not represent the first outburst of Arab racism resulting in the deaths of Africans in Libya. In 2000, blamed by officials for the high crime rate, dozens of Africans “were targeted during street killings.” In response to the killings, the Libyan government was censured by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination over “Libya’s practices of racial discrimination against dark-skinned migrants and refugees.”
Although he is using black Africans to stay in power, Gaddafi has himself treated Africans appallingly in the past. At one time, he had 200 Nigerians on death row in his prisons. When he was chairman of the African Union, Gadaffi was also accused of the extra-judicial executions of 40 other Nigerians. The victims apparently were not tried in a proper court and were subjected to torture. In Benghazi, the rebels’ home base, guards in a Libyan prison were accused in 2009 of opening fire on Somali prisoners, killing 20.
The latest horrific persecution of black Africans in Libya will most likely cause a loss of sympathy for the rebels in sub-Saharan Africa despite the African Union’s silence. There is already a dislike among Africans for Arabs due to Islamic slavery’s cruel past and present-day Arab racism. An irony is the black mercenaries the rebels are persecuting may not even be foreigners but rather dark-skinned Libyans from southern Libya. But that probably wouldn’t make any difference, since the kind of savagery the rebels are visiting on black Africans is not based on politics but rather on an irrational and bestial racist hatred for a category people that have been dehumanized.
Even worse for the rebels, present and past Libyan racism may cause some Africans still in Libya to heed Gaddafi’s hiring call for mercenaries, if they haven’t already, and pick up a gun both for both personal gain and revenge. Beaten, robbed and humiliated, their hatred for the Arab Libyan would make them just the kind of people Gaddafi wants to deal with the rebels. They will need no urging to return cruelty for cruelty.