North Africa, West Asia

On Arab-Arab racism

Maged Mandour

In the Arab World, elites are acutely aware of their condition of inferiority in the eyes of the west, and at the same time feel a sense of contempt for themselves, their culture and their own countrymen.

Maged Mandour
6 February 2015

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”

This quote is taken from W. E. B. Du Bois, an African American intellectual who developed the concept of “double consciousness” in his classic work “The Soul of Black Folk”. Du Bois refers to the condition of African Americans one generation after the end of slavery, especially with regards to their cultural condition.

He mainly describes a condition of ideological domination by white elites, who force the black man to look at himself through the cultural prism of his oppressors, thus creating a condition of self-loathing and racism that is directed against himself and his own kin. In one way or another, participating in his own oppression.

This quote comes to mind as I observe the reaction of the elite classes in the Arab world to the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the proliferation of a certain peculiar condemnation of these attacks. It's not a simple condemnation of the attacks, but also of one's own race and culture - as the main reason for such attacks. In essence, copying the rhetoric of the European right in reducing a complex dynamic to the simplistic juxtaposition of “civilized” versus “savage”.

Interestingly enough, those middle classes do not perceive themselves as part of their own culture; they place themselves on a higher level on the evolutionary scale, above their fellow citizens. They also follow the logic of the need to use violence to meet this threat, whilst viewing the threat of their less civilized compatriots as an existential threat to civilization. In essence, the Paris attack was not just labeled an attack on the French Republic, as President Hollande claimed, nor was it an attack on freedom of speech, as the mainstream media claimed, but the Arab middle classes also identified it as logical support for their anti-democratic outlook and for the need to suppress their opponents.

Paradoxically enough, as much as those elites have fallen under the cultural hegemony of the west, they still have a strong antipathy against it. Those who have contact with it, have a strong admiration for the west, but are also acutely aware that the distinction they make between themselves and the rest of their compatriots is not echoed in the hegemonic centre. In reaction, they attempt to distance themselves even further from their compatriots, trying to prove that they are “civilized” while the rest are not.

Hence, the condition of “double consciousness “, where the Arab elites are acutely aware of their condition of inferiority in the eyes of the west, and at the same time feel a sense of contempt for themselves, their culture and own countrymen. In essence, following the theory of Franz Fanon:

“the colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards”

It follows form this that the Arab world is deemed naturally uncivilized and “stuck” in time. A place where time stands still and the inhabitants hold the same beliefs that their ancestors held from the seventh century onwards.

This is not simply an abstract idea, it has some very real implications for the nature of Arab political order and the future of democracy in the Arab world. One must understand the cause of this “Arab-Arab racism” before trying to understand its impact.

This orientalist ideology of the elites, like all other ideologies, has to serve a social and political function, otherwise it would not be widespread. The elites use an ideology that they inherited from their colonial masters as an ideological justification for the suppression of the masses. In other words, it is used as an argument to stifle dissent, by arguing that the opening up of a political system would lead to the loss of control to “un-civilized” masses.

This argument is also used to de-humanize opposition to the elites, claiming that they are either “uncivilized”, in the case of the Islamist opposition, or naive, in the case of liberal/middle class critics who directly aid the “uncivilized”. This argument is also used as a basis for political as well as economic and social oppression.

Across the Arab world, this view of the lower classes is held by a vast majority of the elites. For example, there is the widespread belief that all workers are lazy and wasteful by nature, and that is why such strict controls have to be imposed and implemented. Any labour demands are considered unreasonable, because the fact that they hold a job is sufficient, regardless of the labor conditions.

The same argument is also used to justify the vast accumulation of wealth by a minority of the country’s elites: the “uncivilized” masses are unable to manage wealth. Racism too becomes an ideology for the economic oppression of labor, and a justification of policies that promote cronyism and economic mismanagement.

Social oppression, where this ideology is used to stifle social mobility, creates rigid social structures. This means that people from certain social backgrounds are automatically excluded from certain jobs or positions because of their background. The resulting rather immobile social structure helps keep the dominance of elites in place and contributes to a “brain drain” process through the active expulsion of those with the highest levels of capabilities not connected to the elites from the Arab world. The mass flight of the professional middle class attests to this.

Egyptians support Sisi in London, 2014.

Egyptians support Sisi in London, 2014. Pter Marshall/Demotix. All rights reserved.Finally, one could argue that this phenomenon is not a domestic one, but rather a product of interaction with western colonial ideology and the close connection between Arab elites and the west. Thus, the suppression of Arab masses is reinforced by the right wing tendencies of the west and is actively used by autocrats in the Arab world to prop up their dominance.

The goal is also for this ideology to seep deeply into society and the average Arab citizen’s sense of inferiority about himself, so that  falling under the ideological hegemony of these elites, he himself will argue for the need for mass repression and for the wealth of the country to be exclusively managed by these elites. This reduces the need for direct political repression. Self-repression amongst the masses will stifle dissent, and strangle any resistance to the current status quo.

Hence also the direct repression of those who dare challenge this ideology on the part of the citizenry - and a growing sense of the need for a “strong man” to harshly deal with the labor movement, since the “uncivilized” masses should not have the power to disrupt society. That is why in this day and age repression cannot only be material, it also needs an ideology, beyond “fighting terrorism”, to justify it. This ideology, I would argue, is “Arab-Arab racism..” 

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