“Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.”
-Ibn Khaldun 14th century Arab historian, philosopher, and sociologist.
During the course of the now five years old conflict in Iraq, ample coverage has been given to the religious strife between the Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim fractions within that country, while comparatively little media coverage has been lent to its long history of an African presence, and the accompanying legacy of slavery, that in many respects mirrors that of the New World.
Through the spread of racial consciousness in the United States during the 1960s, there was often an accompanying interest in the Islamic religion, partially as a backlash to the involvement of Christianity in the slave trade. In the intervening decades, the western world has become aware of an active Muslim presence in the commerce of treating humans as property.
Black gold then and now
Historical evidence from both Arabic and European sources indicate that bondage in what is now considered the Middle East, predates the European transatlantic slave trade by hundreds of years, or at least into the eighth century. Then known as Mesopotamia, these areas includes the biblically significant locale of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta. Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, has had a significant black presence since the seventh century. It was then that the Ethiopian Abu Bakra settled there and was granted his freedom by the prophet Muhammad upon his conversion to Islam. As is true today, Basra became important because of its proximity to the Persian Gulf and its usefulness as a seaport. Then, it was known as a hub for the slave trade; today it is known for the export of oil.
Contemporary stereotypes have some basis in historical fact, as young African females were pressed into service as concubines, while males were often castrated to act as eunuchs (rendering them sexually impotent) in the harems of the powerful aristocracy. The Arab slave trade took blacks all over the Moslem world (although to be fair, there were white slaves such as the Mumuks, a military caste from Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains of Russia), and at least as far as the Indian subcontinent where their descendants can now be found. Just like their brethren on the west coast of the continent, east African slave laborers were highly prized for their adaptability and stamina, and were imported to toil in the harsh Iraqi salt marshes. Their task was to remove the unforgiving top soil in order to reach the less saline dirt below and plant marketable crops.
Subjected to brutal working conditions and meager provisions, the Zanj (a derivative of Zanzibar, the island grouping off the coast of Tanzania), as medieval Arabs referred to them, rebelled against these oppressive conditions in three major uprisings between the seventh and ninth centuries. While not as well known as the Spartacus led rebellion against the Roman Republic which lasted for three years (and was immortalized in the 1960 Kirk Douglas motion picture of the same name), these uprisings are notable for the implementation of what has become modern staples of successful warfare, including the art of foraging, and taking advantage of the enemy’s arrogance and perceived racial superiority.
Reportedly, slavery existed in out lying desert areas of Iraq reportedly until 1969.
“We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of actions.”
The largest of the Zanj insurrections became known as the Revolt of the Blacks, and took place between 868 and 883 A.D. Ironically, their Arab masters were inhibited by a pre-existing conflict with the Saffarid Empire to the east in what is now Afghanistan and Iran, and were ill equipped to prevent the large scale massacres this period is known for. In what may be seen as a precursor to unconventional or modern guerrilla warfare, these medieval insurgents successfully conducted night-raids to secure food, weapons, and other essentials before retreating to escape retaliation. By utilizing state of the art technology in the way of catapults and flame-throwers, and forming alliances with such malcontents as disgruntled Arab tribesmen as well as Persians, Slavs and Turks, the rebels conducted a successful 15 year long campaign and established a fugitive slave state (the capital of which was named Mokhtarieh) in what is now Iraq, Bahrain and parts of Iran. Eventually however, the insurrection was defeated. Some historians attribute this to the lack of a cohesive strategy and the insurgent’s sheepish emulation of their former slave masters. Nonetheless, even in defeat they attained a victory of sorts, as the slave system was transitioned into a less barbaric method of servitude, somewhat akin to the feudal system in Europe.
A Murky Presence
The descendants of these pioneers of insurrection still exist in a country populated by people overwhelmingly lighter then they, as was their country’s leader Saddam Hussein. Just as there is little documentation on their forebearers, members of the Zanj rebellion, Iraqis of African descent, or “Afro-Iraqis” remain a little-known minority as they struggle to maintain their centuries old traditions. Within the country there is very little written history, even among so-called experts in Middle East history. An exact accounting of Afro-Iraqis is noticeably difficult because of the problems in gathering an accurate census in the wake of Saddam’s repression of groups considered a threat to the status quo. And, because some of them may not consider themselves an ethnic minority, even though their brown to caramel coloring stands out compared to the olive or pale skin of other Iraqis.
Today, peoples of African descent make up approximately 8-10 percent of the Iraqi population, according to Professor Runoko Rashidi, historian, lecturer and researcher. Concentrated largely in southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf, they were brought to cultivate the coastal area centuries ago. They were similarly marginalized as are African Americans in the present day United States.
Although many Iraqi officials discount the presence of discrimination by race, black Iraqis are not well represented within the government leadership or among the upper class, while large numbers of dark-skinned people may be found living in the poorer neighborhoods of the country. Rashidi says that comparing Iraq and the United States is like comparing apples to oranges, as the former is largely agricultural. It is generally accepted that religion is an overwhelming influence as it is in all of the Middle East, and herein lies an example of the blatant hypocrisy that can exist within Islam (as in Christianity and other faiths).
Just as medieval slaves were treated as interchangeable components in the cultivation of crops (although the Koran declares that all men are created equal), individual interpretations could find moral justification to substantiate the practice. During the regime of Hussein, ample media coverage was given to the wholesale slaughter of minority Muslim denominations along with secular ethnic groups, but the dictator apparently never targeted his darker hued citizens. While racial prejudice does exist, it is by no means as widespread as religious persecution or discrimination because of tribal differences. Religion has been, and remains the overwhelming influence on Iraqi society.
Over the ages, black Iraqis have acquired a reputation as providers of entertainment in the form of music or dance, as have their counterparts in the West. This is evidenced by the plethora of Afro-Iraqis in many of the leading bands such as Om Ali, the Iraqi musical group (which also can refer to a traditional bread and butter pudding made with sugar, nutmeg, raisins and coconut). Despite denials among the mainstream population, there exists an insulting slang word “abd” or “abid” used to refer to a dark-skinned Iraqi, which has the same derogatory connotation as the “N” word in the English language. While not as overt as in America, many Iraqis do not approve of interracial relationships.
“Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam.”
-from a 2003 lecture by Saudi Arabian religious leader Sheik Saleh Al-Fawzan
Supplementaling oProfessor Rashidi’s comments, contrasting the Middle East with the west is a foolhardy enterprise as the moral precepts and standards of behavior are radically inconsistent. The image of decadence and immorality of the United States, and particularly Hollywood, is pervasive throughout the world, especially offensive to those who embrace fundamental Islam.
Iraq continues to be a popular source and destination point for human trafficking and child prostitution in contemporary society today.
Ironically, in a case of history repeating itself, U.S. private military contractors have recently been hiring as many as 3,000 former commandos from Kenya, Uganda, Zambia for security work in Iraq (from the November 2, 2007 World Tribune). Africans are again being brought to Iraq to fill a labor shortage in the secutiry sector.