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Silent Tension between Arab Americans and Black Americans

I apologize that I have to pause my comparison of American and Nigerian university teachers. Because this is February, which America celebr...

I apologize that I have to pause my comparison of American and Nigerian university teachers. Because this is February, which America celebrates as the “Black History Month,” I have decided to continue with my tradition of using the month to discuss issues about black America.

This week I’ve chosen to highlight a barely discussed but potentially explosive issue: anti-black racism in Arab America. The issue was brought to the fore late last year by a certain Imam Dawud Walid, who is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In an article titled “Fellow humans are not ‘abeed’” (which is republished here) Walid called attention to the fact that many Arab Americans call black Americans “abeed,” the Arabic word for “slaves.” 

“Calling a black person an ‘abed’ (abeed in plural) is offensive,” he wrote.  “The term has been used for so long in certain segments of the Arab World that many people have become desensitized to its meaning.  I know that all people do not use the term with overtly malicious intent; however, the word is disturbing, nonetheless.”
Dawud Walid
The reaction to his article (read it below) by young Arab Americans on Twitter was even more disturbing. The writer was cursed by some, called an “abed” by others (because he is a Black American Muslim), and Arab Americans who supported his advocacy for the boycott of the term were called “abeed lovers”—borrowing a leaf from white supremacists who call liberal, anti-racist white people “nigger lovers.”

Well, it certainly isn’t news that the name for black people in the Arab world is “abeed” and that black people are at the bottom of the totem pole there—as they are everywhere, including America. What is surprising, for me at least, is that Arabs born in racially sensitive America, who are beneficiaries of the gains of the civil rights struggles of black Americans, would choose to use an unabashedly derogatory racial slur to refer to their compatriots—and feel no qualms about it. 

 This is particularly troubling because (Christian) black America is, from my observation, very tolerant of Islam—for the most part. As I wrote in my August 6, 2011 column titled “Islamophilia in Christian Black America,”  “although black Americans are some of the most devout Christians you can find anywhere in the world, they are also arguably the most tolerant people toward Muslims and Islam.”

In the article, I suggested that part of the reasons Christian black America is tolerant, even accepting, of Muslims is that “American blacks have been victims of institutional exclusion and oppression for several centuries. So they know what it feels to be unfairly stereotyped and demonized on account of the misdeeds of a few people who happen to share similar primordial traits with you.”

 Interestingly, the templates, and even vocabularies, that Arab Americans now deploy to fight for greater inclusion in the American society are borrowed directly from the civil rights struggles of American blacks.

Read Dawud’s articles to get a sense of the contempt that some Arab Americans have for American blacks.
Fellow humans are not "abeed"
By Dawud Walid 

I was prompted to write this after a recent Facebook discussion, which I weighed in on, when the term “abeed” (slaves) was used in a thread, in reference to a news story about an African American woman, who flashed an Arab American businessman in Detroit, during a verbal dispute. What was disturbing about the initial thread, before further discussion, was not simply the racist comments that were used about the unruly woman, but that some showed a profound lack of empathy when I mentioned that the term “abeed” is a hurtful word.

Calling a black person an “abed” (abeed in plural) is offensive.  The term has been used for so long in certain segments of the Arab World that many people have become desensitized to its meaning.  I know that all people do not use the term with overtly malicious intent; however, the word is disturbing, nonetheless.

“Abed” is a term that, at one time, had a general meaning of slave, then became a specific term, referring to blacks, who were viewed as subservient.  For instance, “mamluk,” another term that is used for an enslaved person, came to specifically refer to a non-black slave, such as a Turk.  Hence, “abeed” became nomenclature, which strictly referred to people with darker skin, as it is continued to be used today.

It is disingenuous to say that it is a good word, because excellent worshippers of God are “abeed.”  When people use that term, it is not because they are saying that black people are the best worshippers, nor do they call lighter skin persons, or their own pious family members, “abeed.”  The term has ugly roots and is derogatory; therefore, its usage should cease, instead of explaining it off to the offended and telling them not to be so sensitive, because it’s a compliment.  

What was positive about the Facebook discussion though was that many young Arab Americans pushed back against those who used the term, pointing out that it should not be dismissed as non-offensive.  I know Arab American activists throughout the country that promote solidarity between African Americans and Arab Americans.  Moreover, some of them have directly challenged the usage of the term “abeed.”  Likewise, I know of numerous African American leaders, who have spoken out against anti-Arab bigotry among other black people and confronted bigots, like Terry Jones.  

So, the next time you hear someone using the terms “abed,” or “abeed,” politely recap the points made above.  If we want people to be sensitive to us, we must be sensitive to others.  Fellow humans are not "abeed."  

What follows is Iman Dawud Walid’s sequel to the article he wrote pointing out the invidiousness of using a pejorative racial slur (“abeed”) as the name for all black people. He analyzes the responses the article generated from young Arab Americans on Twitter. 

Walid, who is African American, is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is one of America’s most prominent Muslim civil liberties organizations.

Responses to my calling out the term ‘abeed’
Two months ago, I wrote an oped titled “Fellow humans are not abeed” for the Arab American News to address the usage of the term abeed, meaning slaves, used by many Arabs to describe black people.  After receiving some positive feedback from some of my Arab-American friends, primarily in Metro Detroit, I decided to search Twitter for the usage of this term in varying transliterations (abeed, 3abeed, 3beed, 3bid, 3abid & 3abed).  What I found was very casual usage of the term, almost exclusively from teenagers and young adults, who are Arab-Americans and appear to have been raised in the USA.

I decided at this point to not comment directly to those tweeps, but to merely tweet my article at them with the hopes that they read it and stop calling black people slaves.  What I’ve experienced from doing this as well as later engaging some of these tweeps in the past two months continue to be four things.

The first is that some simply have­­­­­­­­­­ not responded to the article when I sent it to them.  Some continue to tweet in which I have not seen them tweet abeed again.  Others have continued to use the slur.
The second response is that some have actually apologized for using the term.  Of those, some of them also said that they didn’t know abeed meant slaves.  They said that their families simple refer to all blacks as abeed.  This is a deeper structural issue of racism among Arabs, primarily in the Levant, which I plan on writing about later.

The third response is that of defending the usage of the term abeed that we are all abeedullah (slaves of Allah), and that I should stop being so touchy.  Of course, this is insincere because they don’t really view blacks as the best worshippers, nor do they call other Arabs with light skin including their own family abeed.  Calling anyone slave is haram (forbidden) anyway according to the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The last of the responses has been horrendous, which involve cussing me out to calling me a slave.

Some Arab-Americans who joined me in calling out the usage of abeed themselves have even been attacked.  One tactic of shame used is calling someone “abeed lover” like how white supremacists say “nigger lover.”

An Arab American colleague of mine is in the planning stages of starting a national campaign to address not just this nomenclature issue, but the broader issue of anti-black racism among Arabs.  Keep in mind that there are Arabs who have dark skin that would be considered black in the USA if looked upon strictly by physical characteristics.

In the interim, an Arab American friend of mine in Michigan has started the twitter account Arab AntiBlack Racism to call out anti-black racism among Arabs and to challenge fellow Arabs on Twitter not to be passive observers when seeing slurs hurled against blacks.

This issue is a race of the tortoise not the hare.  There are deep roots of tribalism and colorism in the Arab world, which pre-date colonialism, were encouraged during colonialism and further solidified within many Arab Americans based upon America’s racial hierarchy.

I also keenly realize that if Muslims sincerely strive to effectively challenge Islamopobia, there needs to be a simultaneous effort to combat ethnic bigotry among Muslims.  The Creator helps those who have spiritual integrity and authenticity.  It’s not authentic to talk about Islamophobia and Arabophobia while being silent on its cancer-like manifestations among Muslims and Arabs.  Also, this is not simply Arab on black racism that Muslims need to face.  There is Somali on “Bantu” racism, black on white bigotry among some in Islamic centers, colorism between Pakistanis and Bengalis, etc.

Given, however, that the most overt discrimination that I see on Twitter is Arab on black racism and my personal interests as a black man, who has felt my share of anti-black racism in the heart of Arab America, Metro Detroit, I’m obliged to deal with this most entrenched form that I see.  This is in no way an indictment on all Arab Americans.  I do know, however, that this issue has been dealt with too passively for many years.  Problems don’t fix themselves on their own as proof of the racism exhibited by those born and raised in the USA. I hope that my challenging it will push more Arab Americans to take more aggressive stands against anti-black racism.

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