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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.