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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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