Posted by: sean | November 20, 2008

Nigga, please: The chutzpah of al-Zawahri

Ayman al-Zawahri has just called Barack Obama a “house nigger.” Most of the news outlets are using the relatively more polite term, “house negro,” that Malcolm X (or Malik al-Shabazz) uses in a speech that is inserted into the Qaeda video.

When I heard this news last night on CNN International (who had to give a brief explanation of the term to international viewers who may not be familiar with the term), I immediately wondered what he actually said in Arabic. So I found part of the video in its original form without English dubbing:

In Arabic Zawahri calls not only Obama, but Colin Powell and Condy Rice (abeed el-beit – عبيد ألبيت ), which literally means “house slaves.” This is a particularly thorny issue in Arabic, due to the ingrained regressive language used to talk about black people. In Arabic, the most common word for a black person is “slave,” which makes the language similar to French, in that you have many offensive expressions that exist to this day. (For instance, “nègre” — “nigger” or “negro” for “ghostwriter.”) I hear the term “abd” all the time, and no one seems to think anything of it. (Sometimes, it’s used to mean “servant,” as in the name Abdullah or Abdel Haq, which translate as God’s servant and Servant of the truth, respectively.)

Abu Muqawama thinks Zawahri won’t take any hits for this, because that’s the commonly used expression in Arabic, which would be true if the underlying message were aimed at an Arab audience. But it’s not. This is obviously a hamfisted attempt at marketing al-Qaeda to American blacks, or at the very least, American black Muslims, in addition to people in Africa or elsewhere in the developing world. These attempts mirror the Soviet rhetoric used in the cold war to rally the world and black Americans against the US because of American racial injustices, which manifested themselves most infamously in the Jim Crow laws of the south.

Zawahri is obviously barking up the wrong tree, not least of all since it’s no secret that al-Qaeda has its own race-relations problems:

Analysts said Zawahiri’s use of such racially charged language was risky and could backfire. They noted that while al-Qaeda has tried to appeal to Muslims of all races and nationalities, its leadership has always been dominated by Arabs and followers with darker skin have found themselves marginalized.

“Al-Qaeda is not a model of racial harmony, and it’s never been one,” said M.J. Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London research group. “It’s led by a small coterie of Arab Muslims, in particular Egyptians. The rest have been treated as second-class citizens, people to whom orders are given.”

For instance, analysts said al-Qaeda’s leadership has been conspicuously silent about racial problems in Sudan, including widely reported discrimination by Arabs against black Muslims. They said bin Laden in particular has overlooked such problems in part because he was based in Sudan in the 1990s and friendly with its Arab rulers at the time.

But back to the Arabic term: just because that’s the common nomenclature doesn’t make it unoffensive, as Muslims in Darfur or even Sudanese Arabs in the Levant might tell you. After all, “nigger” was the most common word for a black person in the American South for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it was an acceptable term to those being labeled as such. So I think there’s a good chance that Zawahri’s comments, which he probably thought to be pretty clever, will backfire. After all, it takes a lot of chutzpah to call Obama, a former community organizer, a house nigger.

In any case, it’s unlikely that an American soldier will ever mimic the great Muhammad Ali by refusing to go to Afghanistan, saying, “No salafi ever called me a nigger.”



  1. Great post, Sean. I agree that al-Zawahiri will not get much traction on this one.

    The issue of race in Islam is a very contradictory one. Malcolm X was moved to see all the different races at the Hajj becoming one, but beyond that ideal of Islam, I have not seen much racial tolerance. Racism is often couched in class, national, or geographic terms, making it sometimes difficult to detect. I think the term used for “black” when I was growing up is very telling. `Abid aswad (black slave) – when one of the two terms would have sufficed, as if to add insult to injury.

  2. It would be interesting to do a survey of the words used in all Arab countries. If memory serves, they just use “aswad” in Egypt to talk about Nubians and upper Egyptians, but I think they use “abd aswad” or maybe just “abd” to talk about Sudanese, especially refugees. In Algeria, they use “gahlouche,” but I don’t know where it comes from, although it is definitely pejorative.

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