Is al-Qaeda racist?

Barack Obama’s race may have added significance in the “Muslim” terror group’s warped world-view.

 

On 13 July 2010, Barack Obama gave an interview to the South African Broadcasting Corporation in which he attacked al-Qaeda and its supporters' disregard for African life. The White House went on to describe al-Qaeda as "racist" and for treating black Africans like "cannon fodder". Right-wing commentators have since been on the warpath, accusing Obama of getting angry only when the victims of terrorism are black. In response, the president's supporters have been at pains to explain that his statement was part of a discussion on Islam in Africa and that his critics are mischievously interpreting it out of its original context.

Whatever Obama's original intention was, he touched on a sensitive topic within Muslim communities, one that Muslim scholars, particularly in Africa, have been discussing since the 7 August 1998 al-Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaeda and its supporters have succeeded in justifying their violence not only by manipulating theology, but also by basing their arguments on what many in Africa believe are racist readings of certain narrations (known in Arabic as ahadith) attributed to the Prophet of Islam. Since Obama's election, such "Prophetic narrations" have been widely circulated, discussed and commented upon on Arabic websites and forums supportive of al-Qaeda.

These narrations have become part of al-Qaeda's eschatology, an end-times theology in which Obama's presidency is seen and presented as a fulfilment of a prophecy about the rise of "an evil black African political power". According to one of the narrations, a "skinny-legged", "big-eared", black African from Abyssinia leading a powerful army will destroy the Kaaba (the Muslim holy sanctuary in Mecca) while prospecting for gold! The original Arabic of the narrations mentions "skinny legs" and "big ears".

During the 2008 US presidential elections, Arnold Schwarzenegger criticised Obama for his skinny legs while Rush Limbaugh and others made references to Obama's "big ears". Little did they know that they were providing material for scholia on al-Qaeda's interpretations of Islamic eschatology. We have since seen discussions on Arabic forums asking, "Is Obama the skinny-legged man mentioned in hadith?" and "Will Obama destroy the Kaaba?"

In the early 1980s in apartheid South Africa, an Islamic organisation published a book titled Kitaabul Imaan (meaning "book of faith"), which listed the rise and reign of "evil black Africans" as one of the "Greater Signs" of the end of times. Islamic youth organisations in neighbouring independent states such as Zimbabwe mounted successful campaigns to have the book banned, on the grounds that it was racist, un-Islamic and dehumanising to black Africans. However, the book is still in wide circulation and it forms part of a body of Muslim literature that some Islamic scholars have classified as racist material.

Middle Eastern societies have a long way to go in acknowledging and dealing with the injustices of racism in their midst, as a recent meticulously researched book by Brian Whitaker, What's Really Wrong With the Middle East, is able to show. It is not uncommon in the Arab countries to see an Arabic film production of a religious drama in which the roles of the Prophet's black companions are played by Arab actors with blackened faces. What is different about extremist and terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and their supporters is their deployment of religious texts to legitimise racist positions.

Since the early proliferation of such texts, some classical Islamic scholars have been quick to condemn them and question their sources. The first to do so was the black 9th-century polymath al-Jahiz in Abbasid Iraq, who wrote the controversial work The Book of the Glory of the Blacks Over Whites and the celebrated Rasa'il (Essays). His arguments in defence of black Africans against what he saw as Arab racial prejudice became the basis for later writers, including none other than the medieval theologian Jalal al-Din Suyuti, still regarded today as one of the most authoritative Islamic scholars.

Suyuti went on to write the book Elevating the Status of the Blacks. Ironically, it was the theologian Ibn Jawzi (died 1200), a figure highly regarded by al-Qaeda, who produced the most devastating attack on the prolific narrations against black Africans in his Apologia on Behalf of the Black People and Their Status in Islam. The only English translation of this book is available as part of a PhD thesis in the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Race and racism are taboo topics that many of us Muslims prefer not to discuss unless they relate to non-Muslims' attitudes to Muslims. I think that a successful response to the manipulation of Islamic theological texts by al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups, in an effort to justify their violence, must consider seriously the issues of race and racism and how these sometimes have a bearing on interpretation of such texts, particularly those which now form part of Islamic eschatology.

Michael Mumisa is a PhD candidate and Special Livingstone Scholar at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, and also works as a researcher at Woolf Institute in Cambridge.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.