Black Lives Matter in the Middle East

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Afro-Iraqis from the Movement for Freedom Party, pictured in 2018

George Floyd’s murder horrified people of the Middle East just as it did many in the US and, just as in America, the outrage that followed exposed cultural fault lines, forced uncomfortable introspection, and was sometimes exploited for political purposes.

Erasure and Exploitation

Throughout the Persian Gulf there are populations of Afro-Arabs who arrived centuries ago, yet are often mistaken for migrants or otherwise discounted. After Floyd’s killing the Persian Gulf local social media was filled with criticism of US racism (Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al Zaidi tweeted support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) “as a fellow victim of US imperialism”), but some wondered how their compatriots could be so oblivious to local racism. In Iraq, more than 400,000 identify as Afro-Iraqis, yet Iraqi education pays little attention to Iraq’s history of African enslavement, or to the Zanj Rebellion of the ninth century, one of the most successful slave revolts in human history. The 2008 election of Barack Obama inspired Afro-Iraqi Jalal Diab to organize the Iraqi Movement for Freedom Party to address discrimination. Diab was assassinated in 2013, but the Floyd killing revived calls for Afro-Iraqis to renew their commitment to ending discrimination.

Jalal Diab was inpired by Martin Luther King and Barack Obama to found a political party for Afro-Iraqis in 2008

Afro-Iranians endure similar public erasure. Historian Behnaz Mirzai learned little about Iran’s history of African slavery while growing up in Iran, and notes a persistent belief that racism is not a problem in Islam. Harassment is trivialized as merely “in fun” (blackface at celebrations, joking references to “Arkansas” or “burnt toast”), an approach that ignores the impact of marginalization on economics and education as well as the psychological cost of racial aggression and othering.

The Floyd murder prompted Sheikh Ali Mwega, a Kenyan-born cleric residing in Iran, to channel his frustration with casual racism into a two-minute Persian-language video entitled “Words You Must Never Say to a Black Person,” which went viral in the weeks after the murder. The Collective for Black Iranians, a diaspora community venture, also offered its platform for literature, films, photos, or other creations that challenged the divide in identity between “Black” and “Iranian.”

The Iranian government condemned the killing and crackdown on BLM protesters, but domestic critics point out that protests in Iran are violently crushed. Hundreds were killed by Iranian police in 2018, and protester Navid Afkari, who was detained and tortured following the protests, was executed in September, 2020. Perhaps it was an effort to distract attention from the execution that led the Revolutionary Guard to float a proposal in the same month for a video game called “Saving George Floyd from the Police.”

Afro-Turks have similar concerns with government hypocrisy. Days after Floyd’s murder demonstrators outside the US consulate in Istanbul waved signs in Turkish and English reading “I can’t breathe!” Turkish citizens were certainly horrified by Floyd’s killing, but this protest took place in a country that has waged unrelenting war on civil liberties since 2013. However, allowing this protest helped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discredit US criticism of his own human rights record. Erdoğan further exploited the crisis by characterizing his opposition as “Antifa” in a June, 2020 phone call with Trump, thus justifying his repressive tactics.

Demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate, Istanbul

The shrinking legal space for protests is not the only issue. The death of Festus Okey, a Nigerian immigrant shot to death in an Istanbul police station in 2007, is still seen by immigrant right groups as an example of the low priority given to investigations of deaths of people of color in Turkey. And on the Izmir coast Afro-Turkish descendants of the Ottoman slave trade wonder why Turkish citizens condemn the legacy of slavery in the U.S. but ignore their past. Often mistaken for foreigners or otherwise “erased” from visibility, Afro-Turks struggle to preserve their heritage. Nikki Brown, a former Fulbright Scholar in Turkey now teaching at the University of Kentucky, is working with the community to create a digital archive and oral history project before that legacy is lost.

Memories of Revolutions Past and Present

The summer protests resonated in a different way in North Africa, a multi-racial region where people of color are often relegated to the cultural margins.

Many Egyptians watching protests roll across the US recalled the energy of the 2011 Arab Spring and the horrific images of activist Khaled Said after his murder in police custody. Since the military coup of 2013, protesting has become far more dangerous, but demonstrating in support of BLM provides one way of bringing attention to civil rights without directly confronting the government. Ironically, the Egyptian government has also highlighted news coverage of the BLM movement, but in this case using images of “chaos” in the US to serve as a warning to those who would reduce government policing in Egypt.

In Sudan, debates over the relationship between militarism and racism began in 2019, when the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir was overthrown. Recognition of the ways in which al-Bashir used racism within Sudan to drive violence against communities like Darfur led to discussions of the role of colonial culture, Western-dominated contemporary media, and pre-colonial patterns in shaping ideas of race in the nation. Cartoonist Khalid Albaih saw the BLM protests as a necessary reminder that while Sudan may have toppled the military, it will require a different struggle to eradicate racism.

In Israel, a Multifaceted Reckoning 

For Afro-Israelis, the Floyd killing recalled the killing of an unarmed Ethiopian-Israeli teen, Solomon Tekah, by an off-duty police officer in Jerusalem in 2019. Tekah’s death sparked a wave of protest across Israel, with Knesset (parliament) member Pnina Tamano-Shata, who arrived in Israel from Ethiopia as a child refugee through Operation Moses, condemning the discrimination suffered by Ethiopian Jews. In an impassioned speech in the Knesset, she accused Israelis of tolerating treatment of Ethiopian Jews that would be unacceptable if directed against European Jews.

Ethiopian-Israeli mothers protesting against police violence in 2019

The parallels between US police shootings and the vulnerabilities Palestinians face before Israeli police were made all too evident just days after the death of Floyd, when Eyad Hallak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man, was shot dead by police in Jerusalem’s Old City. Protesters carrying “Palestinian Lives Matter Too” signs denounced the aggressive policing and profiling that contributed to the tragedy. Jewish Voice for Peace notes that the police use of tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, stun grenades, and chokeholds that horrified America in the past months have been the norm endured by Palestinian communities in Israel for decades. In June Tamano-Shata and another Ethiopian-born Israeli, Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yavarkan, proposed legislation that would dismantle the Internal Affairs Office and relocate some of the responsibilities to the Justice Department.

Mural of George Floyd on West Bank wall

The Global Future of BLM

Awareness of the police violence problem in the US is important, but is also its own mark of privilege. Why, asked Thabi Myeni, a South African Law Student, in an Al Jazeera opinion piece, does the world know the name of George Floyd and not Collins Khoza, shot by South African police in April, 2020? And why don’t we see the hundreds of black bodies living and dying under the guns and drones of global security policing? And what about the thousands languishing under other guns in migrant transit camps? Where is the outrage for the global policing of life that is fundamentally racist in its application and outcomes?

The BLM protests echoed in the Middle East for many different reasons, but it is clear the tragic issues of racism, shrinking civil liberty space, and militarization are not just national, or even regional, but rather global issues.

An artist adds an image of Floyd to a blast wall in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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