The dirty little secret is finally out. Even Robert Fisk, whose anti-Israeli credentials endear him to critics of the Jewish state, wrote in an article in The Independent, on May 7, 2012, of the pious silence by the politicians, prelates, and businessmen of Arab countries about the treatment of Asian domestic servants, and discrimination against migrant labor, male and female.
The overlong story in the June 10, 2012 edition of the New York Times that a few activists, in this case Ethiopian Israelis, were protesting against racism and discrimination, is a familiar leitmotif to those who still read that newspaper; but less frequently, if ever, can those readers learn of the racism, intolerance, and discrimination that are endemic in Arab countries, or of the slavery that still exists in some of them.
Discrimination, intolerance, and racism in the Arab world persist in many forms: they affect women; all non-Muslims; dark skinned people, Blacks, would-be refugees, and migrants. Among those groups and peoples who have been denied political and civil rights are Kurds, the non-Arab people whose language belongs to the Iranian group; Berbers, the pre-Arab native people of North Africa; Turkmen who speak their own language; the Christian Copts in Egypt; the Assyrians or Assyro-Chaldeans in Iraq subject to both ethnic and religious persecution; and Jews. Christians and Jews are still regarded as dhimmis ["tolerated" people], defined in different ways but always as second-class citizens. Extreme Islamists, regarding them as infidels, have used violence against many, including the Copts and the Bahais, as well as against Jews.
Recent years have seen even stronger examples of discrimination than is customary: the slaughter in Darfur; the massacre of Kurds by Saddam Hussein and their persecution by Syria and Turkey; the Algerian government repression of the Kaybles, and the maintenance of apartheid of the Zaghawa people in the Sudan, especially in Darfur. A reasonable calculation is that over the last twenty years more than 1,500,000 African Christians have been killed or expelled from Southern Sudan, or enslaved by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.
In his unjustly neglected book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis recounts that many of the stories in the Arabian Nights portray Blacks as slaves, and as second-class citizens, while Arabs are "white." The Egyptian story is not a pleasant one for a variety of reasons. Egyptian Copts, about 10 to 12 million, are treated as second-class citizens and denied senior jobs. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have won the election with 70% of the seats in new parliament, the Copts' situation is likely only to worsen. Individual Copts and their churches have already been attacked. The Virgin Church in Assiut in Upper Egypt was burned. Copts have been sentenced to prison for allegedly insulting the Prophet. About 200,000 Egyptian Christians have tried to get visas to come to the US.
Before he became Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, who was dark skinned, was insulted as Nasser's "Black Poodle" and "The Monkey." Although Blacks suffer from discrimination in many countries, Egypt has a long history of it, with Egyptians attacking black Africans in recent years. Riot police in 2005 cleared a camp of 2,500 Sudanese refugees, mostly from Darfur, at the Egyptian border with Israel. Egyptians have killed numbers of African refugees trying to reach Israel. Black Africans report verbal harassment and negative language, such as being called "oonga boonga" or samara [black], as well as physical attacks in the streets by the public, and even by Egyptian law enforcement officials. Blacks have been stopped for arbitrary identity checks on the basis of skin color, and have faced arbitrary roundups.
In Basra, Iraq, Blacks are treated contemptuously: people in street talk call them abd [slaves]. In Yemen, darker skinned individuals are known as al-akhdam [the servants]. Kuwait has shown similar hostility to blacks. 2,000,000 black African migrants were treated as virtual slaves in Libya. Even though slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, around 15% of its population is still enslaved.
Discrimination is also rampant in the economic area. In the United Arab Emirates, the federation of seven emirates, Dubai, with its high rise buildings and luxury resorts, is attractive to tourists who are unaware that 2,500,000 migrant workers compose 80% of the population and 95% of the workforce. As the major group in the construction business, they are treated as bonded laborers, in essence slaves, despite the alleged UAE adherence to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The migrant workers are abused by very low wages, years of debts to recruitment agencies, and hazardous working conditions that result in a high rate of injuries and death.
Above all, there is outright slavery. Even though Mauritania officially abolished slavery for a third time in 2007, the legislation has never been enforced. Mauritania is an unpredictable country, one of the few, along with Yasser Arafat and the PLO, to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War in 1991. Today, some 500,000 are still enslaved there, including the Haratin, the hereditary slave caste who speak Arabic, the language of their masters. Similarly, slavery still exists in Yemen, in the provinces of Hudaydah and Hajja in the North, even though it was officially abolished in 1962.
In contrast, more than 120,000 of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community now live in Israel with full civil and political rights. Some are in mobile home camps, but the majority are in towns and cities, and are helped by generous government loans or low interest mortgages. Undoubtedly problems exist in the attempt of Ethiopians, from a less-developed society, to become integrated into Israeli society. They arrive with a low level of education and have language problems. But they are beginning to participate in Israeli political and social life, to enter higher educational institutions, and to take positions in public bodies, including the diplomatic corps. Even the most prejudiced critics of Israel will hesitate to call this story an illustration of racism.
Is the New York Times listening? Or does it just prefer to falsify easily attainable facts?
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.