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.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.