Published: Tuesday, April 28, 2009
As I speak to you, I am deeply disappointed that my colleague Milly Nsekalije, a survivor of the 1994 massacre of Rwandan Tutsis, could not share her story with all of you. The reason: In the eyes of some, she cannot have been a victim of the genocide since she is not 100% Tutsi.
What does it say about the state of racism in our world when the victims of a genocide practise exclusion on the basis of the so-called purity of blood lines and ethnicity?
Worse than her exclusion from to-day’s event is the fact that it has happened at a conference meant to combat racism. As this shows, we have turned the concept of racism upside down.
Racism operates not just as a black/ white divide, but also as a cancer that affects relations between people of colour — people who often share the same religion, but have different shades of brown or black skin.
This internalized racism, which devours the people of the developing world in Asia and Africa from within, is too often left out of the discussion of racism.
This afternoon, I would like to shed some light on two genocides — one happened in 1970-71 in what is now Bangladesh; and the other that continues as I speak in the Darfur region of Sudan. In both instances, the root of the problem lay with one group of Muslims feeling they were racially superior to their victims, who also happened to be Muslim. In both cases, the doctrine of racial superiority and the practice of institutional racism went unchallenged, even after the horrible consequences of such racism were evident and for all to see.
In 1970, my country of birth, Pakistan, was divided in two: an eastern part that is today known as Bangladesh and the western rump, which survived a subsequent war with India as the state we now know as Pakistan.
East Pakistan was inhabited by the darker-skinned Bengali people who happened to be the majority community of Pakistan, but found themselves ruled by a lighter-skinned minority from what was known as West Pakistan.
In the first 25 years of the country’s history, the racist depiction of the darker-skinned Bengalis as an inferior and incapable people became the unquestioned dogma among the ruling minority. The darker-skinned Bengalis’ culture was portrayed as un-Islamic and influenced by Hinduism. Their music, cuisine and attire were mocked, and their language was banned, leading to widespread protests and deaths in 1952.
In 1970, after suffering under the minority rule of West Pakistan for 25 years, the people of East Pakistan voted to elect a party based in their region, and gained a clear majority in the country’s national parliament.
However, the racist view that Bengali people were incapable of ruling the country, or that they were traitors to the fair-skinned minority of West Pakistan, led to a military intervention and widespread massacres over a 10-month period.
The killing of the Bengali people by the West Pakistan army stopped only when India intervened and defeated the Pakistan Armed Forces, but not before hundreds of Bengali intellectuals, professors, poets, authors, musicians and painters were rounded up and massacred.
All told, one million Muslims were murdered by fellow Muslims in an orgy of hate that defied the teachings of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, whose religious authority was being invoked by the Pakistan army.
One would have hoped that this genocide would have served as a cautionary tale. But the sad fact is that racism in the Islamic world has remained ubiquitous in the years that followed. Yet there is near universal denial about it, not just among the governments of Muslim nations, but also among many NGOs and civil society groups.
In Sudan, the Arab janjaweed militia and the Arab government in Khartoum have caused the murder of 500,000 Darfuri Muslims whose only fault is that they are black and thus considered inferior to the ruling classes of that country.
The mistreatment of black Muslims by those who feel they are superior because of their lighter skin colour has gone on throughout history. Only in the Middle East can one get away with addressing a black man as Ya Abdi, which translates as “Oh you slave.”
Only the Arab League would choose to embrace Sudan’s President, a man charged by the International Criminal Court for his murderous campaign in Darfur.
It is time that the medieval belief in the inferiority of non-Arab Muslims to Arab Muslims is laid to rest. Arab countries and leaders of Arab NGOs must denounce this doctrine, which has led to discrimination against darker-skinned Muslims by Arab governments in countries as far apart as Dubai and Darfur.
If we cannot allow a woman to speak here because she is of mixed blood, then all I can say is that in the words of Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep. – Tarek Fatah is the author of the recent book Chasing Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.