Sunday, 14 December 2008

Is Racism the Arab World's Dirty Secret?

About a week ago, a US-based Egyptian journalist, Mona Eltahawy, wrote an article - picked by the International Herald Tribune - titled "The Arab World’s Dirty Secret: Racism". Mona also posted the article on her blog. The post attracted new readers (looking her up after the IHT article) and many comments.

In the post, which was well-written and heart-felt, Mona makes these points:
  1. While on a Cairo underground train (subway) Mona witnesses a young Egyptian taunting a Sudanese (black) girl racially. Mona intervened, but the Egyptian girl's mum sided with her daughter's racist behaviour. Many passengers sat silently and watched. Later, the Sudanese girl told Mona: “Egyptians are bad”; Mona felt the girl must have been abused publicly before.
  2. Mona states that: "We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it."
  3. She cites an incident in 2005 in which Egyptian police stormed a make-shift camp housing Sudanese refugees and, in the process, killed 28 of them.
  4. She cites the killing of a total of 33 Sudanese migrants from the war-torn Darfur region at the Egyptian-Israeli border in 2007.
  5. She generalises this racism from Egypt to the rest of the Arab world, citing the Arab world's silence on Darfur (in Sudan).
  6. She says Muslims (an even bigger generalisation than Egypt and the Arab world) have double standards: we cry "Islamophobia" but "never stop to consider how we treat minorities and the most vulnerable among us."
  7. The television network ABC staged an experiment in which an actor worked in a bakery and refused to serve an actress dressed as a Muslim woman in a headscarf. Mona was deeply affected by this programme, and she wonders whether an Arab television channel would dare to stage a programme that boldly looks at our own racism.

I was immediately drawn to this topic. It is a sensitive topic that I think of regulary, particularly in light of my residence in a country in which my religion and ethnicity are in the minority. In fact, it is a sensitive topic that most human beings grapple with; otherwise, why would we call Obama's election "historic"? This is a touchy topic; as evidenced by the many comments that Mona's blog post received. Some of the comments were personal; one commenter gave highly-specific aggravations that he claimed to be representative of what southern-Sudanese citizens suffer in Egypt.

So, beginning with this post and a couple more on the way, I want to explore the racism that Mona accused Egyptians of denying. Is it real, does it exist, is it widespread? I want to explore if we human beings can put an end to racism? Also, I want to explore the question of: are Egyptians respectful towards _each other_? Forget other nationalities and other races, are we respectful to each other?

This is a topic that _could_ have ramifications. Someone in the State Department in the US, having read Mona's article in the IHT, can easily insist on dedicating a portion of US aid to anti-racism campaigns.

So, watch this space for more posts.

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