A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 by Bruce S Hall
Duke University Department of History Professor Bruce Hall has written an important book about the Sahelian region of west Africa, with implications eastward to Sudan. In our times, this region has witnessed horrific conflict, in particular Darfur in western Sudan and the periodic conflicts in northern Niger and Mali between Arab and Tuareg separatist groups on the one hand and the national governments on the other.
Ethnic conflict in contemporary Africa, such as the horrific events of Rwanda in 1994, is an important historiographical question among Africanists. Most Africanists rejected the popular media narrative of ancient "tribal" conflict and traced contemporary conflicts to patterns of colonial rule. Dr. Hall believes, based on Arabic texts (and their French translations) from the pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence eras, oral interviews in the late 1990s and early 2000s and primarily French language media reports, that the conflicts in the Sahelian West African region are racial, not ethnic, and that the racism has its roots in Arab Muslims' conflation of black with the permanent and hereditary legal and moral handicaps of disbelief and enslavement.
This thesis challenges me in three ways. As an Arab Muslim, my first reaction is to deny or marginalize criticisms of Arab Muslims. I also don't like to believe that Islam is in complete conflict with contemporary notions of human rights, in which I'm a strong believer and for which I advocate.
The second is my Marxist historiographical leanings, which lead me to believe nearly every development in history, regardless of the verbalizations of its participants, is caused by the underlying political economy. In other words, even if a "white" pastoralist in the Niger Bend region says that my tribe has the right to seize the property of those "black" agriculturalists because two hundred years ago my ancestors conquered them while they were non-Muslim and hence justifiably enslaved them and their position to me is analogous, the Marxist would say that the ideological assertion of superiority is secondary to the pastoralists' need/desire for the agriculturalists' surplus production/reproduction (slaves).
The third is benefiting from American white supremacy by living as a non-black, non-native in the United States yet experiencing some marginalization because I am not American white. I politically want to say that Arab Muslims' racism is petit/personal while white Euro-American racism is grand/systematized. [Note that the use of quotations around "white" and "black" is to signify to the North American reader that people known as "white" in the Niger Bend region would still be considered "black" here. I did not want to imply that Dr. Hall's use of those terms was questionable. They are living, real terms in the Niger Bend area.]
What I think is undeniable is that the current discourse and violence are racially constructed. For me, the best chapters of Dr. Hall's book are those for which multiple viewpoints of conflicts are available, i.e. the chapters covering developments from the 1920s forward. I found the evidence of racial meaning more compelling in these texts and hence Dr. Hall's thesis of precolonial racist beliefs more believable. Twentieth century intellectuals from Sahelian "white" pastoralist communities could not have expressed themselves in that manner solely based on their absorption of French racism. They must have been drawing on the documents and discourse produced by their precolonial predecessors.
Much space is given to a Muhammad `Ali ag Attaher, the leader of the Kel Entsar Tamashek-speaking group east of the Niger River Bend from 1926 until 1946. During his reign, after visits to France where he observed his society's relative weakness and backwardness, he strongly advocated for modernization on a French model, particularly in education. In 1948, he left L'Afrique Occidentale Francaise and eventually spent considerable time in Makka, Saudi Arabia. As decolonization progressed around the African continent around themes of Negritude and liberal values and as the French colonial administration increasingly failed to uphold the Sahelian pastoralists' assertions of rights to the property and persons of black agriculturalists, Muhammad `Ali began to agitate for independence of the Sahelian nomadic peoples from the future states of Mali and Niger. In addition, there is strong evidence that he used the few years left of colonial rule to traffic "slaves" in his control to Saudi Arabia for sale into slavery there.
I'm less convinced by the chapters based on those precolonial texts themselves. I had a brief opportunity to peruse some of them in 1995, and I did not recall examples like those Dr. Hall mentioned. I question some of the translations and interpretations Dr. Hall made of those texts, and I'm writing a separate piece on that topic. Even assuming that the texts Dr. Hall chose are accurately rendered and interpreted, they form a rather incomplete racist ideology when compared to the texts of the French he presents in the next section of the book.
Dr. Hall writes on p. 208:
... the arguments [to the French colonial authorities] deployed by Sobbo [ag Fondogomo, chief (Tamashek amenokal) of the warrior-led Tengeregif confederacy based in the western half of the Niger Bend from 1894 to 1946] and the writer of the Igillad history [p. 195] in defense of positions of privilege are racial in the local context of the Niger Bend.Could not these be interpreted as defense of what the Sahelian elites considered their private property? I'm not quite convinced that calling slaves "black" is racism in any scientific understanding. As another example, in Hausa, happy is farin ciki while sad is bakin ciki. Fari is white, baki is black. Is this racism? It certainly seems different to me than the racism which measures skulls and uses standardized test scores.
Despite my doubts and my prejudices which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, those texts and the material conditions of pastoralist/raiding societies could certainly be the seed of the 20th century racism which partly forms the basis of Azawad separatism and often is its vehicle of expression.
I want to end with our situation in the United States, which I consider a White Supremacist/oligarchic society. I recently participated in a Muslim Bookshelf event in Augusta, Georgia, my hometown, and in the opening night we screened Prince Among Slaves. As I Googled this topic, I found this horrific piece from the neo-conservative Frontpage Mag which claimed that the protagonist of Prince Among Slaves, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, "would have been more at home in the [Klu Klux] Klan, than in some of the Black churches and cultural centers where 'A Prince Among Slaves' has been screened."
I have the Terry Alford book Prince Among Slaves, but I have not read it yet and I cannot evaluate the extent to which the film follows the book and I cannot evaluate the extent to which Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori should be considered a heroic figure. I can say that the film to me is not an attempt to sell African-Americans on Islam (there is a body of Muslim-produced literature which attempts this), and in fact Abdul Rahman as Muslim plays a minor part in the story. I believe the film's value lies in his struggle to achieve freedom, which should appeal to an American audience regardless of the slave's religion or former status.
But I wonder if the Frontpage Mag author will find support in Dr. Hall's book to the Frontpage Mag author's claim that "Islamic racism has a long history and played a role in the destruction of African cultures, just as much as the European variety did." And regardless of any objective evaluation of this claim, the intent of FrontPage Mag is to convince people that empire abroad is justified and suppression of dissent in the United States, especially from Muslims, is warranted.
So where should this leave the reader, the North American Muslim interested in the spread of Islam across wide geographical areas of Africa? Well, we obviously can't reject scholarship because ill-intentioned people may use it for propaganda. Similarly, we have to understand that the legacy of slavery, particularly race-based or religion-based slavery, whether it be in the Americas, Africa or Southwest Asia, is toxic and dismissing it only delays resolution and healing. Finally, while North American Muslims don't enslave today, do we practice a religious imperialism where we assume superiority based on an ethnic origin? Are we more interested in perpetuating identity than creating community?