"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: July 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Arabs and Whites be Real Africans?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This week’s ruminations were inspired by two events that occurred in May. The first was an Internet debate I had with a Canada-based Nigerian compatriot over whether or not Obama’s then impending visit to Egypt qualified as his first “African” visit. The second was the suspension of a white Mozambican man from an American university for identifying himself as a “white African American.”

These two apparently unrelated events actually strike at the core of the enduring debate about what it means to be African. Are Arabs and Berbers in North Africa “real” Africans? Can white settlers in Africa ever be “real” Africans? In other words, is blackness, however understood, infrangibly constitutive of Africanness?

My debater from Canada argued that Obama’s visit to Ghana, not Egypt, would be his first visit to Africa or, as he called it, “real” Africa. “I was referring to Obama's first visit to a (sub-Saharan) African country--to see his own people, the real Africans,” he wrote. “By my strict Afrocentric definition, this would not include countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc which, though located on the African continent, are inhabited by peoples of Arab descent.”

Not surprisingly, this view appears to enjoy wide currency among many black Africans. However, the supreme irony of this conception of what constitutes "real Africa" is that the term "Africa" actually originally exclusively referred to the same people and countries that this narrow, simplistic, and exclusionary conception seeks to exclude from it.

The name Africa is a holdover from present-day North Africa's association with the ancient Roman Empire of which it was a province. "Afri" is the ancient Latin word for the amalgam of Berber peoples that inhabited (and still inhabit) what we today call North Africa, and "ca" is the Roman suffix for "land" or "country." So "Africa" is basically Latin for "land of the Afri." In other words, it means land of the Berbers. It was never used to refer to the people of "sub-Saharan Africa" until relatively recently.

After its Arab conquest in medieval times, the entire area comprising western Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and eastern Algeria was also called "Ifriqiya," which is the Arabic rendering of “Africa.” Ifriqiya’s capital was Qayrawan (Kairouan) in what is today central Tunisia. (Under Roman rule, Carthage, also in present-day Tunisia, was the capital of the Africa Province of the Roman Empire).

So, the countries that my debating partner excluded from his notion of what constitutes “real” Africa were actually known and referred to as “Africa” for more than a thousand years before European colonizers decided to arbitrarily extend the name to our part of the world.

I reminded my cyber conversational partner, too, that there were no Arabs in North Africa until about the 8th century. The indigenous groups there, as I said earlier, are broadly called Berbers. Ancient Greeks called them Libyans, Medieval Europeans called them Moors, and they call themselves some version of the word Imazighen.

According to historical records, there were three popes of Berber filiation who came from the Roman province of Africa, among them Pope Victor I who served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimus Severus (himself of Berber ancestry). (Zinedine Zidane, the France-based international football star, is probably the most famous Berber alive today).

It was the Islamization of the people through the invasion of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century that Arabized them. But there are still many Berber cultural revival efforts (collectively called Berberism) fighting to either reclaim (such as in Tunisia and Algeria) or preserve (such as in Morocco and Libya) what the people consider the lost or dying glories of their pre-Islamic past.

And, in any event, Arabs have lived in the continent of Africa in large numbers since about the 8th century and have been referred to as “Africans” hundreds of years before us. We even have Nigerian Arabs, called Shuwa Arabs in Borno State, who have lived in that part of the country since at least the 12th century, that is, hundreds of years before there was a country called Nigeria. I asked my debating partner if he would consider Shuwa Arabs “fake” Nigerians since by his so-called Afrocentric definition of Africans Arabs are not “real” Africans.

Now, "skin color" can’t even be a criterion, much less the sole criterion, for "admitting" people into the “real” Africa, because the "purebred" Berbers of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, etc (the original or, if you will, the “real” Africans) are actually, on average, "white" if we can, for now, arbitrarily deploy blue eyes and blond hair and pale skin as markers of "whiteness."

Several studies have, in fact, shown that there are more blue-eyed and blond-haired people among the Berbers of North Africa than there are among southern Europeans (that is, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, etc). The Berbers, additionally, have more genetic proximity with Europeans than they have with black Africans.

Malcolm X had a poignant, life-changing experiential encounter with the complexity of what it means to be African when he visited Ghana in 1964. In his impassioned Black Nationalist speeches in America, Malcolm had always made glowing and approbatory references to “Algerian revolutionists” (whom he, of course, regarded as Africans) who fought the French to a standstill.

“In Algeria, the northern part of Africa, a revolution took place,” he said in his famous October 10, 1963 speech called Message to the Grassroots. “The Algerians were revolutionists; they wanted land. France offered to let them be integrated into France. They told France: to hell with France. They wanted some land, not some France. And they engaged in a bloody battle.”

So when he went to Ghana (his first visit to Africa), a year after this memorable speech, he sought and got audience with the Algerian ambassador to Ghana. The ambassador turned out to be what Malcolm recognized as a white man—he had blue eyes, blond hair and pale skin. But he was a Berber, a “white” African. And he was just as zealous about pan-African unity as Malcolm was.

But in the course of their conversation the Algerian pointedly asked how a person with his kind of racial and geographic origins fitted into Malcolm’s exclusivist and racialist constructions of Black Nationalism. The formulations of Black Nationalism—and Africanness—that Malcolm had cherished crumbled.

How could someone who looked exactly like the people he called “white devils” in America be an African—and a “black nationalist” at that? This was particularly epiphanous for Malcolm because, not long before this encounter, he had repulsed a conscientious white American girl who’d told him she wanted to join his Black Nationalist movement to fight white racism. He later confessed that his brusque rebuff of the white girl’s sincere offer to join his movement for racial justice in America was one of the greatest regrets of his life.

So, if “whiteness” (or “non-blackness”) is, in fact, original to the conception of “Africanness” why is the idea of a “white African American” such an anomaly? Why would someone be suspended from a school simply because he identified himself as a “white African American”? Well, the converse can also be asked: if whiteness is original to the conception of Africanness, why is it now always necessary to modify “African” with “white” if a non-black African is being identified?

Well, first, what’s the story of the “white African American”? According to ABC News, one of America’s major news networks, a white Mozambican identified as Paulo Serodio said he was harassed and assaulted by his African American classmates at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in the state of New Jersey after he defined himself as a “white African American.” The racial tension that his newfangled self-description touched off subsequently led to his suspension.

Serodio, a 45-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, told ABC News that he is a third-generation African of Portuguese descent and therefore legitimately considers himself a “white African American.”

The truth is that the notion of a white African American strikes the mind as counter-intuitive precisely because over the last couple of decades, the term “Africa” has undergone tremendous notional transformations. In the popular imagination, Africa now evokes the image of “blackness.” The people to whom the name originally referred (whom we would call white by today’s racial typologies) have now been effectively marginalized from its contemporary ideational universe.

There is perhaps no greater proof of this reality than the fact that present-day North Africans themselves concede ownership of the name Africa to black people. In early May this year, for instance, I sat close to a Tunisian lady during a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. In the course of our chit chat, she told me she was “going to Africa” for the first time. I was balled over. When I reminded her that her country, Tunisia, in fact, used to be the symbolic and administrative nucleus of “Africa” for several centuries, she agreed but insisted that black people have now rhetorically appropriated Africa. Perhaps she is right.

But the point of this musing is not to make a case for some romantic geographic African unity or to minimize the well-documented cases of anti-black racism among Arabs about which my friend, Moses Ochonu, has written persuasively, but to call attention to the arbitrariness—-and power—-of naming. As Ali Mazrui once reminded us, even our name was named for us by Europe. “Europe chose its own name, ‘Europe,’ and then chose names for the Americas, Australia, Antarctica, and even Asia and Africa,” he wrote in the book Collected Essays of Ali A. Mazrui. “The name ‘Africa,’ originating in North Africa as the name for a sub-region, was applied to Africa as a whole by European map-makers and cartographers.”

So next time you start arguing about who is a real African and who is not, be sure not to overlook the etymology and history of the term “Africa.” Perhaps it will minify your emotional investment in “Africanness.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Anti-African Racist Insults Obama Got Away with in Ghana

By Farooq A. Kperogi

President Barack Obama has by now firmly established a reputation (or, if you like, a notoriety) as someone who is smoothly agreeable and courteous, even excusatory, when he talks to America’s putative “enemies”— and friends— but condescending, even insulting and downright rude, when he talks to his own friends and “family,” especially if those friends and family happen to be descended from his absent father’s bloodline.

Read Obama’s speeches to African Americans and compare them with speeches he gave to other groups in America, such as Jewish Americans, for instance. You will notice that speeches to Jewish Americans (the people initially thought to be determined to torpedo his presidential ambitions but who actually gave him over 70 percent of their votes) are usually remarkably polite and politic while speeches to African Americans (people who gave him an unprecedented 95 percent of their votes) are often deficient in refinement or grace and generally hallmarked by an obnoxiously overweening hauteur. His admirers call this “tough love” to family.

But nowhere does this dissociative presidential identity disorder become more apparent than in a comparison of Obama’s Cairo speech (directed at Arabs) and his Accra speech (directed at black Africans). In the Cairo speech, he was deep, engaging, admirably nuanced and, above all, deferential. In the Accra speech, however, he came across as patronizing, impertinent, pedestrian, and avuncular in an offensive way.

To be fair, there is much to be admired and celebrated in Obama’s Ghana speech. Except for its bland and flyblown platitudes and simplistic formulations, it was earnest, inspired and well-delivered. And, although the speech sounded and read more like a paternalistic rebuke to errant and obstinate children than an address to a sovereign nation’s parliament, I frankly have not the littlest sympathy for the clueless and inept African leaders Obama so thoroughly infantilized.

However, what we should not allow him to get away with was his studied and gratuitous racist dirty dig at Africans or, as he called us, “sub-Saharan” Africans. Now, what is this racist dirty dig? Well, it’s his revoltingly nauseating references to us as “tribes,” to conflicts in our continent as “ancient tribal conflicts,” and to incidences of ethnic discrimination as “tribalism.” Obama should know better than to be that objectionably ignorant.

Until relatively recently, for instance, the Irish, Obama’s relatives on his mother’s side, were systematically discriminated against in employment opportunities in America and Britain by people who looked as lily white as they. (Remember the ubiquitous "No Irish need apply" signs in both Britain and the United States?) Was that, too, “tribalism,” similar to the one you said your father allegedly suffered in Kenya, Mr. Obama? Oh, I forgot, that is called “anti-Irish racism,” even though the Irish belong to the same “race” as the people who discriminated against them. Ethnic discrimination is “tribalism” only when it happens in Africa, oops sorry, sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s curious that it was a white-owned American newspaper called the Politico that first called out Obama on this racist putdown of “sub-Saharan Africans.”

“While the presidents’ messages were broadly similar—touting democracy, deploring corruption, and calling for a new approach to development aid—-it’s hard to dispute that Obama gets away with criticism of Africa that other U.S. presidents could not,” the paper wrote.

For a contrast of contexts, the paper cited the example of Clinton’s travel to Africa in 1998, which was preceded by an impressive assemblage of a panel of scholars on Africa who briefed the press and the president about do’s and don’ts.

“Keep in mind that the word ‘tribal conflict’ is extremely insulting to Africans,” the Politico quoted a certain Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to have told American reporters who would cover the presidential visit. “Don't write about ‘century-old tribal conflicts in African countries’ because the conflicts that we talk about today usually go back 60, 70 years. The very definition of the ethnic groups that we know today are [sic] ethnic groups that were defined as such during the colonial period.”

The paper continued: “Yet, when Obama uttered the phrase ‘tribal conflicts’ at a press conference Friday as he discussed his planned trip to Africa, it went virtually unremarked upon. So, too did several references he made in his Ghana speech to battles among ‘tribes.’”

“Another president,” the paper concluded, “might have been accused of racism...but Obama avoided that simply by affirming the abilities of Africans.” Well, no! Affirming the abilities of Africans (whatever in the world that means) has not helped Obama to avoid the charge of racist denigration of Africans. If it was wrong for Clinton or any other past American president to deride Africans as “tribes” it can’t be right for Obama to do so simply because he is half African.

The truth is that in spite of what we might like to believe about Obama, he is culturally a white American (having been raised up by his white grandparents) and has, in spite of himself, internalized some of the prejudices that come with his cultural socialization.

So far, he has been getting away with his misguided “tough love” policy to a people who have had to contend with tough luck most of their lives. But it won’t be long before Africans and people of African descent everywhere start calling him out in large numbers and reminding him that perpetually showing tough love to people who, for historical reasons, need tender love isn’t bravery; it’s cowardice of the lowest kind.

For my previous articles on the word tribe, read this: "What's My Tribe? None. Also read this: "Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi's Alibis for Self-Hatred."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An Islamic University in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

From my experience, many young Muslims across the world have an ambivalent relationship with America. They love the progress America represents but resent what they regard as its anything-goes moral climate. They are awed by the creativity and vitality of its people but are outraged by the politics of its government. They are simultaneously seduced and repulsed by its raunchy popular culture. They admire the enviable quality of its education but are suspicious of the moral content of this education.

To be sure, this ambivalence toward America in the Muslim world is not limited to young people. I know of many Nigerian Muslim parents who desire to send their children to the United States to drink from the fountain of its superior educational system but are concerned that the moral convictions they studiously cultivated in their children would be diluted, perhaps extirpated even, by the permissiveness of American campuses.

That is why Malaysia has lately become a huge magnet for students from northern Nigeria seeking education outside the shores of their homeland.

Well, this may all change. Inside Higher Ed, one of America’s top online news sources for post-secondary education, reported on May 20, 2009, that an American Muslim group has concluded plans to establish an Islamic university in America by 2010 at the earliest or by 2011 at the latest.

Interestingly, the university, which will be named Zaytuna College, will be located in the city of Berkeley in the state of California, the same state that is host to Hollywood, the glitzy, licentious headquarters of the American film industry. Indicatively, its motto is: “Where Islam Meets America."

“The proposed Zaytuna College would be a first: a four-year, accredited, Islamic college in the United States,” Inside Higher Ed reported. The planned Islamic university is actually an outgrowth from an existing educational institute called the Zaytuna Institute and Academy, which was founded in 1996. The institute currently offers sub-degree courses in Arabic and Islamic studies.

People behind the Islamic university said it would take off with only two majors (Arabic language and Islamic law and theology) and gradually expand to secular disciplines in the sciences and humanities. Fluency in Arabic is a prerequisite for admission to the university. However, intensive language course would be organized for people who have no knowledge of Arabic but desire to study in the university.

And, although it is an Islamic university (but not a seminary), it will be open to people from all religious persuasions in the tradition of faith-based universities in America such as the Catholic University of America, Georgetown University and the various Jesuit universities in the country.

While the school will be co-educational, Hatem Bazian, chair of the management board for Zaytuna College and senior lecturer of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley, told Inside Higher Ed that men and women would sit on opposite sides of a classroom.

But the university has to scale through many hurdles before it can see the light of day. First, it has to generate between $15 and $25 million as take-off grant and to start an endowment. The brains behind the university said that wouldn’t be a problem.

The second obstacle is that the university must be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six regional associations that accredit public and private schools, colleges, and universities in the United States. (The Western region covers institutions in the states of California and Hawaii, and the territories of Guam, American Samoa, etc).

Bazian told Inside Higher Ed that he doesn't expect that the Islamic character of the university would pose any complication in the accreditation process, pointing out that Zaytuna would follow in a long tradition of America’s faith-based universities.

"I'm confident that Zaytuna will be welcomed not only by WASC but also by other institutions that see the value of developing an American Muslim institution that is intended to develop a unique program to fit the needs of a growing Muslim population -- in conversation with other academic institutions both in California and around the country," Banzian said.

"This is not to say that people of ill will, outside or in the general arena, will not take issue with this. I think this is part of the period that we are in, that Islam is under the microscope... and some individuals of ill will find the opportunity to express their ill will, but we will not be distracted by some who desire to make a career out of criticism. We'd rather build."

Well, he is right. Already, many groups are mobilizing against the university even before it has had a chance to go through the accreditation process. In a report on its site, the Christian Science Network, for instance, alleges that the scholars behind the Islamic University have connections with or sympathies for terrorism and anti-Americanism.

If Zaytuna is able to convince the authorities and ordinary Americans that it will not be a breeding ground for terrorism and anti-Americanism, it will break ground as one of only a few Islamic universities in the West.

Most importantly, its establishment will be a significant symbolic balm to the strained relationship between America and the Muslim world and an added fillip to President Obama’s efforts to court the trust and friendship of Muslims.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

American Ponzi schemes versus Nigerian 419 scams

By Farooq A. Kperogi

On June 29, 2009 71-year-old Jewish-American financier Bernard Lawrence Madoff (pronounced MEIDOFF) was sentenced to 150 years in prison for operating a stunningly vicious Ponzi scheme that has been characterized as the single biggest investor fraud ever committed in history by one person. US federal prosecutors reckoned that Madoff defrauded people of almost $65 billion.

Yet, although Madoff is American and the Ponzi scheme he perfected to a science is as American as an apple pie (Ponzi scheme is named after an American called Charles Ponzi who invented the scam in 1903), no one has called the swindle an “American scam” in the same way that 419 email scams are called “Nigerian scams” even in the official communications of Western governments.

Indeed, shortly after the magnitude of Madoff’s fraud became public knowledge and the mass outrage of Americans began to seep in, the American media, including the influential New York Times, strained hard, some would say too hard, to exculpate Jewish Americans of associational complicity in Madoff’s staggeringly monumental scam. Which is as it should be. No innocent person deserves to share in the guilt of another person’s crimes by the mere fact of sharing the same ethnicity or national space with the criminal.

The trouble is that this consideration is not often extended to “other” people. Email frauds from Nigeria are committed by a tiny minority of Nigerians. But the scam is named after the entire country even in official U.S. government documents.

As I once argued on this page, even though 419 email scams are omnipresent on the Internet and swindle many innocent (but sometimes greedy) people out of their hard-earned money, Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the word. That dubious honor, interestingly, belongs to Americans, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, the two U.S. agencies that monitor Internet crime. Yet there is no such thing as "American Internet scams."

The statistics on the Web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) show that between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2008 was committed by Americans.

In 2008, for instance, only 7.8 percent of Internet frauds were perpetrated from Nigeria. Compare this to America's 66.1 percent and the UK's 10.1 percent. Add to this the myriad of offline frauds that America has birthed in the past couple of years—Ponzi schemes, multi-level pyramid schemes, telemarketing frauds, etc—and you have a place that is more deserving of the epithet “a nation of scammers” than Nigeria.

The figures from IC3 also show that 419 email scams cumulatively constitute less than 3 percent of all online frauds and that the prevalence of these email scams decreased from 15.5 percent in 2001 to less than 3 percent in 2008.

While our unflattering international reputational profile may be deserved—no one can deny, for instance, that there is high-level corruption in high and low places in Nigeria and that many of our compatriots engage in spectacularly high-profile international crimes—we are not worse than many countries that are outside the radar of the Western media.

This was the conclusion reached by a US-based Gambian professor of international relations at Miami University called Abdoulaye Saine who visited Nigeria for the first time this year. In a perceptive essay titled “Why the bad-rap about Nigeria/ns,” Saine wrote: “Contrary to generally held negative perceptions of Nigerians, they are a gracious and hospitable people who are welcoming of visitors. This is not the case in many parts of the world. Why then have Nigerians and Nigeria had such a bad-rap? In a country of over 130 million or more along with a large Diaspora, one is certain to find many bad apples. Regrettably, it is the bad apples that give Nigeria and Nigerians their less than flattering image.”

This gracious appraisal of Nigeria and Nigerians, rather paradoxically, elicited negative reactions from many Nigerians in the diaspora. Some said the author’s account of Nigeria was overly saccharine; others slandered him as being “in the pay of the Nigerian government.”

It would appear that most diasporan Nigerians have a deep psychological investment in the perpetual portrayal of Nigeria and Nigerians in the worst imaginable light. It's hard to locate the inspiration behind the excessively showy but contemptibly piteous self-loathing that many diasporan Nigerian unceasingly exhibit on Internet discussion boards. I can only surmise that some diasporans have a psychic need to justify their dysphoric exilic conditions by habitually imagining the worst of their homeland. National self-hatred now functions as a psychic defense mechanism to suture and soothe the rupture and frustrations of voluntary expatriation.

While I perfectly understand the sentiments that inform the angst that many of us—both at home and in the diaspora—feel at the unimpressive pace of our growth as a nation and the ineptitude of our post-independence national leadership, I am constrained to observe that the counter-intuitive, knee-jerk self-hatred Nigerians spewed in response to Professor Saine’s sober and nuanced article was truly pity-inspiring and ridiculous. For me, that wasn’t patriotic disillusionment or self-reflexive criticism; it was ludicrous self-dislike.

The larger import of the author's write-up, in my mind, is to make the case that Nigeria isn't nearly as terrible as it's been cracked up to be, that many countries that have more flattering external images than Nigeria are, in fact, not qualitatively better than Nigeria.