Racism in Libya

Twitter Summary: Some see in Libyan racism an opportunity to attack the revolution. Others see in the revolution an opportunity to attack racism.
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Arab prejudice against blacks has a long and ignoble history. Racism against Africans has been a problem of long standing in Libya. Whereas progressives see the current revolutionary situation in Libya as an opportunity to combat this disease and built a new unity between Africans and Arabs free at last from Qaddafi's meddling, some pro-Qaddafi "left" groups are attempting to use Libyan racism, both real and exaggerated, to attack the revolution. They do this by denying that racism was ever a problem under Qaddafi and "discovering" it among those they still insist on calling the "rebels."

To hear them tell it, you'd think the Klu Klux Klan just took over in Libya. This alarmist piece from the Party for Socialism and Liberation is typical of this line. FYI, PSL is the leading member of the ANSWER Coalition:

NATO’s rebels are lynching black people in Libya [30/08/2011]

It is now beyond doubt, and being reported widely: While NATO has been pounding Libyan cities and massacring civilians with thousands of air strikes, the NATO-led “rebels” have been rounding up, targeting, beating and lynching darker skinned Libyans and immigrant workers from other African countries.

No one should be surprised. Imperialism, racism and attacks on immigrant workers go hand in hand.

In the battle for the working-class neighborhood of Abu Salim in Tripoli, where resistance to NATO was strong, NATO warplanes bombed indiscriminately and the “rebels” swept through the wreckage, kicking down doors and slaughtering civilians, many of whom were trapped in the neighborhood precisely because of the saturation bombing.

This is a very warped view of reality. Take, for example, the claim of "saturation bombing." Does PSL even have a clue what they are talking about? Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam was an example of saturation bombing. It involved 306,183 strike sorties that dropped 864,000 tons of bombs and probably killed over a million Vietnamese. Nothing like that has happened in Libya.

While the PSL says "NATO warplanes bombed indiscriminately and the “rebels” swept through the wreckage," Reuters tells it somewhat differently,

Libyan rebels stormed Tripoli's Abu Salim district, one of the main holdouts of forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in the capital, on Thursday after a NATO airstrike on a building in the area, a Reuters correspondent said.

Rebel fighters were sweeping through houses to flush out snipers and were emerging with dozens of prisoners, the correspondent said, adding that gunfights were ongoing.

So "saturation bombing" turns out to be "a NATO airstrike on a building." NATO hit a grand total of 3 targets in Tripoli on the day Abu Salim fell in some of the hardest fighting of the whole Tripoli campaign. They hit that building in Abu Salim and, for their own safety, two surface-to-air missile launchers somewhere around the city. A lot of brave freedom fighters gave their lives to liberate Abu Salim that day but these "anti-imperialists" will give all the credit for the victory to NATO and it's 3 strike "saturation bombing."

They lack a similar sense of proportion when it comes to their charges of racism among the revolutionary forces. The purpose of these exaggerations is to warn off anyone who might be inclined to rethink their opposition to intervention and support the revolution:

The racist crimes of the rebels, however, should clear up illusions by those in the anti-war movement that the rebels are progressive in any way.

While many of these "anti-interventionists" claim only to be anti-NATO and 'neutral' with regards to Libya's civil war, the truth is that they long ago threw their lot in with Qaddafi. Now that their predictions that NATO boots on the ground would be required to beat Qaddafi have fallen flat, and the popular support they claimed for Qaddafi in Tripoli and western Libya has been shown to be an illusion, and especially now that the truth about the Qaddafi regime's horrific crimes against humanity are coming to light, they have turned to the most cynical forms of demonization of the revolution as their last defense.

After all, if some unknown Arab painted a racist slogan on a wall between Misrata and Tawergha, why not reprinted it a thousand times and condemn the whole movement for it. If some unprofessional citizen soldiers commit errors in the heat of battle, why not use that to smear the whole revolution in a effort to turn the clock back to Qaddafi's systematic and state sponsored racist violence.

So before we can address the real history of racism in Libya or the very real problems of the present, we must deal with these damning charges of "lynching of black people" and "racist demonization campaigns and pogroms."

On September 4th, Human Rights Watch issued a report in which they called on the new Libyan authorities to stop the arbitrary arrest of black Africans, and while they made that critique, and many others with which I agree, they also said:

Human Rights Watch has not found evidence of killings of Africans in Tripoli or systematic abuse of detainees, but the widespread arbitrary arrests and frequent abuse have created a grave sense of fear among the city’s African population.

So no "lynchings," no "pogroms," although there is some evidence for lynchings six months ago in Benghazi the first time protesters seized a fort and captured some snipers.

And the truth is that Africans in Libya have every reason to fear that they are in grave danger. For example, Nubianem wrote of "events [that] occurred a few months ago when thousands of Nigerians, Ghanians and other West Africans were lynched, attacked and killed in the streets of Libya," but he was not talking about Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, he is writing in December 2001 about events that took place under Qaddafi's watch almost ten years ago.

The US state department had a lower body count:

In October Libyan mobs killed an estimated 150 Africans, including a Chadian diplomat, in the worst outbreak of antiforeigner violence since Qadhafi took power in 1969. Government security forces reportedly intervened to stop the violence, but then deported hundreds of thousands of African migrant workers by driving them in convoys to the southern border and leaving them stranded in the desert (see Section 6.e.).

Arab Racism

The core problem here is Arab racism towards black Africans and that wasn't created by the freedom fighters, many of whom are black Libyans, BTW. Some of the army officers that came over to the revolution the earliest were black. And it wasn't even created by the self-styled "King of all African Tribes" Mummar Qaddafi, although he is one of the relative few that has managed to reap a handsome profit from it. It goes back over a thousand years and is closely associated with the slave trade.

Writing about modern day Arab racism in the Nigerian Village Square Moses Ebe Ochonu says in 2005:

The case of the Sudan is perhaps the most vivid, poignant, and irrefutable example of Arab racism against black Africans. Let it be noted that until the Janjaweed and their racist and murderous Sudanese government backers gave a bad name to the art of hating, marginalizing, and murdering blacks, Arabs never quite saw the raiding of black villages for slaves and cattle, especially in Southern and Western Sudan, as a crime. The racism which propels these practices was increasingly authorized (and rationalized) by the discourse of the distinction, within Islam, between dar-al Islam (the abode of Islam) and dar-al-harb (the abode of war and unbelief). For many Arabs, the historical description of blacks as slaves and servile presences in the Arab world is hard to unlearn. Descriptive categories etched in received grand-narratives and myths can only be dismantled through a self-conscious (and self-critical) denunciation of prejudices constructed in a historical time and place as a function of power.

Arabs still generally regard the Darfur genocide as a public relations disaster rather than as a barbaric racist war against black people. We have yet to hear unequivocal condemnation of the Sudanese government's racist practices from Arab states. To do that would be hypocritical because some of these states themselves condone the racist practices of mavericks or practice anti-black racism in their own official policies. For instance, black African immigrants are routinely killed, maimed, and their houses and properties destroyed in Ghadaffi's Libya--- the same Ghadaffi who wants to be the leader of a politically united African super-state. Africans have become jaded about Ghadaffi's feeble condemnations of anti-black riots in his country and the ad-hoc and sterile apologies he offers after each tragic episode.

Arab racism is itself but a poor relative of white racism, which was also developed to justify the very profitable African slavery and from which the Arabs also suffer, so it is at the same time both a tragedy and a comedy that in many Arab countries we see things like this:

Fair & Lovely, a popular whitening cream, advertises itself on Arabic TV when a model is rejected for being too dark, only to be ecstatically accepted after a few weeks of applying the magic cream.

Among the Arabs as among the black Africans, there is a kind of racism within racism that exists in which you are judged by how light your skin is. Meanwhile, all the white people are out buying creams to make their skins darker, but such is the human condition we are dealing with.

Qaddafi's use of racism

Qaddafi's method of rule was classic divide and conquer. First he pitted Arabs against Africans and then within those two large groups, he pitted tribe against tribe. The Berbers he put in a class by themselves. They weren't even allowed to speak their native tongue even though they have inhabited these lands for more than three thousand years.

One method he used was to spend a lot of talk and a little money to insure the support and loyalty of some black Libyans and well as other selected black Africans.

While PSL would have you see Abu Slim as a simple, patriotic working class Libyan neighborhood. Other more detailed descriptions tell us what was unique about it and why the people there fought for Qaddafi like no place else in Tripoli:

The Abu Slim neighborhood near Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound has long been a regime stronghold manipulated carefully by the ruling family. "Saif al-Islam used to come here and give kids 200 dinars and a Kalashnikov. Khamis would come too," says Ramadan Ali Osman, whose apartment was destroyed in the recent fighting. A poor neighborhood, populated lightly with regime officials and a large number of African migrants, Abu Slim proved a ripe recruiting ground for cheap government fighters. "They would drive in — the brigades — and recruit kids for their forces," says Osman. Just days before the rebels captured Tripoli, residents say Gaddafi's son Saadi was the last one to make an appeal. "Saadi came here to form a brigade out of the youth," says Adil Masoud Moussa, a resident. "He gave money to a big boss in the neighborhood to give to the youth to fight against anyone who hated his father."

So in a desperate ploy that had no chance of saving the regime, Qaddafi's son was in this poor black Tripoli neighborhood handing out guns and money to African youth and imploring them to fight to the death for Qaddafi, and now certain pro-Qaddafi "leftists" want to lay the resulting deaths at the feet of the revolution with charges of racism. That is how matters really stand.

Writing in the Cedi Post last September, Kwame E. Bidi tells us of another way Qaddafi profited from racism:

Addressing the European Union (EU) in Rome, Gaddafi warned that “Europe runs the risk of turning “black” unless the EU pays Libya at least €5 billion (£4.1 billion) a year to block the arrival of illegal immigrants from Africa”. He continued, “Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European and even black as there are millions (of Africans) who want to come in. He described the migration pattern as something “very dangerous”.

If one analysis Gaddafi’s statements critically, it comes out clear that he is essentially saying, “Europe, you need to protect your prestigious white identity and prevent it from being blackened by the influx of black African people”.

He is actually playing the race card quite subtly, by appealing to the racial prejudice of the European people. Thus, he not only referred to the potential risks posed by illegal immigrants as undesirable consequences, but also that, black faces in Europe, whether legal or otherwise in itself, constitutes a danger to white European identity.

Gaddafi bolstered his dislike for black people and then projected his own racial bias on white European Christians when he further remarked, “We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans”.
After his speech, one Italian MP, Luigi de Magistris, criticized the Libyan leader of keeping tens of thousands of African migrants in “concentration camps” in the desert, reported Telegraph, UK.

Gaddafi’s blunt disrespect for black people in general, calls to question the intention behind his call for African unity. Many scholars believe Gaddafi has a hidden agenda against black Africans and that the African Union (AU) was simply a means for him to further his religious and political ambitions in sub-Saharan Africa. One such scholars, Prof. Kwesi Kwa Prah, alleged in 2004 that, Gaddafi’s true objective in AU is to create a space for Arabism and Arab expansionism.

My earlier dairy Helter Skelter: Qaddafi's African Adventure has a lot more about his history with the African Union, his interventions in Africa's wars and his African immigrant policy, however it was written before he was forced out.

Since the liberation of Tripoli, we have also been able to learn more about the plight of immigrants under Qaddafi's rule. For example, there is one group of homeless black African immigrants that have been living under tarps strung between boats in a small Tripoli fishing port. The war has been especially disruptive for them. Time reports:

Since the rebel takeover of Tripoli last week, a few philanthropists have ventured into the camp with gifts of food and water, they say. But for months, men with guns used to come to loot and beat people up, the camp's inhabitants say. "They came in here robbing our gas, stealing our property," says Margaret Asanti, a Nigerian who has been at the camp for almost two months with her two young children. She lived a relatively stable existence in Tripoli for 12 years. But she says, "If you take me to my country, I'd be very happy. I'm tired of being in this place."

Also since the fall of Tripoli, indisputable proof of Qaddafi's use of black African mercenaries in his bloody bid to extend his 42 year dictatorship has been pouring in:

In Tripoli Human Rights Watch has found evidence that the Gaddafi government recruited and used African mercenaries from Chad, Sudan, and other countries. Human Rights Watch researchers located a large base used by hundreds of mercenaries from other African countries since February 2011, who were recruited and commanded by the 32nd Brigade of Khamis Gaddafi.

I would add that there is also ample evidence that Qaddafi has employed mercenaries from other Arab and Europeans countries as well and not all black Africans fighting for Qaddafi were mercenaries or even foreigners. As with the Abu Slim district in Tripoli, Qaddafi had curried favors and built loyalties in certain strategic communities.

The black township of Tawergha outside of Misrata is one such community and for four brutal months Tawergha was the staging area for the siege of of Misrata that took thousands of lives. Needless to say there were some hard feelings expressed. The WSJ reported:

The hatred of Tawergha stems from witnesses who say loyalist soldiers were accompanied by hundreds of volunteer fighters from Tawergha when they ransacked and burned dozens of properties in an assault against Misrata and surrounding areas on March 16 to 18.

There are also accounts of rape, with one rebel commander putting the number at more than 150, but they are harder to prove given the stigma attached to the crime in the conservative Muslim nation and the lack of testimony.

Some of the hatred of Tawergha has racist overtones that were mostly latent before the current conflict. On the road between Misrata and Tawergha, rebel slogans like "the brigade for purging slaves, black skin" have supplanted pro-Gadhafi scrawl.

The racial tensions have been fueled by the regime's alleged use of African mercenaries to violently suppress demonstrators at the start of the Libyan uprising in February, and the sense that the south of the country, which is predominantly black, mainly backs Col. Gadhafi.

That sign, presumably in Arabic, that WSJ reported as "the brigade for purging slaves, black skin" has been so widely quoted to prove "the rebels" aren't "progressive in any way" that I wish I could find a picture or at least the orginal Arabic for a second opinion because translation can be a tricky thing. As Moses Ebe Ochonu pointed out:

Arab racism is so deep it is inscribed in the fundamental semantic structure of the Arabic language. Till this day, the generic word or for a black person is the preface "abd," which translates as "slave," as in "Abd"-allah (slave or servant of God). This linguistic norm, among many other racially-charged ones, is an expressive constant which holds true for the entire Arab-speaking world regardless of dialect and orthography.

So indicting the revolution for this sign may be an indictment based on a bad translation of a language that itself has racist roots. You know, like "angel food cake" and "devil's food cake" or the "darker elements" phrase I use below.

The revolution's shortcomings and its immediate tasks.

In their investigation Human Rights Watch didn't find a systematic racist pogrom organized from the top, as the Qaddafi supporters make out. However they did find that black men were being arbitrarily arrested and they did find discrimination in their treatment. Clearly this is wrong and must change.

The widespread neighborhood arrests seem to be a decentralized process, Human Rights Watch said, with no apparent oversight by the NTC. Two Tripoli members of the NTC defended the arrests, saying they were necessary to ensure security and, in the words of NTC member Abdulrzag Elaradi, to “secure the revolution.” But both said that detainees must be treated humanely and the NTC would not tolerate maltreatment or indefinite detention.

At another facility, the Maftuah prison in the Fernaj neighborhood, Human Rights Watch saw about 300 detainees on September 1, including some who had been wounded in fighting. About 50 of the detainees were Libyan and the rest were sub-Saharan Africans. Most of the Africans whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in groups in their crowded cells said that armed men had picked them up for no reason after NTC forces took control of Tripoli.

The conditions for the Libyan detainees were acceptable, but the sub-Saharan Africans were in overcrowded cells with a putrid stench; one cell had 26 people and six mattresses. The African men Human Rights Watch interviewed complained of inadequate water, poor sanitation, and not being allowed to make phone calls to ask family members to bring their documents.

While the NTC faces the most immediate task of putting down all remaining military resistance and rooting out and killing or capturing the leading elements of the Qaddafi regime still at-large, before the freedom fighters can start laying down their weapons and picking up the tools of their former trade, extraordinary care must be taken that the darker elements of Arab racism don't haunt the revolution.

Certainly mercenaries and Libyans who fought for Qaddafi must be rounded up and accessed. Their weapons must be located and seized. This is a military necessity. Some of them should be held for a while. This is also a military necessity. The worst of them should stand trial and face penalties. This is necessary for justice.

But skin color provides little intelligence as to who should be rounded up. The vast majority of the black Africans in Libya are black Libyans or immigrant laborers and asylum seekers. They number in the millions as compared to a few thousand Qaddafi loyalists and mercenaries.

As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch put it:

“The NTC has legitimate concerns about unlawful mercenaries and violent activity, but it can’t simply arrest dark-skinned men just in case they think they might be mercenaries,” said Whitson. “African migrants have worked in Libya for many years, often carrying out the most unpleasant jobs, and this is no way to treat those who stayed put during the uprising.”
“The NTC should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse.”

Not only is using the necessity of capturing a few thousand Qaddafi loyalist as a pretext for "throwing a net" over that much larger community of black men of fighting age wrong on a moral and ethical basis, it is a very dangerous military practice for the revolutionary at this time.

First, because in trying to scoop up so many innocent people, they will inevitably allow many important fish to escape their grasp.

Second, because any error on the part of the revolution that even smells of Arab racism, any impropriety whatsoever, will sow doubts about the revolution in the hearts of the people of southern Libya and sub-Saharan Africa and create fertile ground from which the pro-Qaddafi forces can continue their resistance.

This is exactly why PSL and other Qaddafi supporters are giving this story so much play now, but they will never be able to sell it unless the freedom fighters themselves give it some currency. These are questions of immediate tasks.

Future tasks of the revolution

In the long run, the revolution can only be completely successful when all of the supports that represent the foundation for a totalitarian regime like Qaddafi's have been cut away. As long as they exist, the people can never really be united and the sewers of the soul that allow dictatorship to take root and flourish in Libyan society will continue to exist. One of these is inequality between men and women but that is beyond the scope of this piece.

Another is the division between Arabs and Africans, and it must be said frankly that Arab racism is largely the cause and it has resulted in discriminatory treatment of both black Libyans and African immigrants, both legal and illegal.

Under Qaddafi's 42 year reign, not only was this encouraged, it became a matter of state policy. This is the first thing the NTC and the new Libyan government must do. They must overthrow this state policy and the laws and traditions that go with it. Racial, ethnic and tribal equality must rule the day, and not just in the preaching, we've all heard that before, but most importantly, in the practice.

The NTC views, as expressed in A vision of a democratic Libya, provide a good starting point for racial and ethnic equality and justice in the new Libya:

The state to which we aspire will denounce violence, terrorism, intolerance and cultural isolation; while respecting human rights, rules and principles of citizenship and the rights of minorities and those most vulnerable. Every individual will enjoy the full rights of citizenship, regardless of colour, gender, ethnicity or social status.
We recognise without reservation our obligation to:
8. Build a democratic Libya whose international and regional relationships will be based upon:

a. The embodiment of democratic values and institutions which respects its neighbours, builds partnerships and recognises the independence and sovereignty of other nations. The state will also seek to enhance regional integration and international co-operation through its participation with members of the international community in achieving international peace and security.

b. A state which will uphold the values of international justice, citizenship, the respect of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations, as well as condemning authoritarian and despotic regimes. The interests and rights of foreign nationals and companies will be protected. Immigration, residency and citizenship will be managed by government institutions, respecting the principles and rights of political asylum and public liberties.

c. A state which will join the international community in rejecting and denouncing racism, discrimination and terrorism while strongly supporting peace, democracy and freedom.

But more than that will be needed. Prejudices and attitudes that took centuries to develop won't go away over night but the struggle against Arab racism is one that the Libyan people and their government must undertake robustly now and must sustain until it is no longer a hindrance to the people's development and freedom.


Freedom Fighter paralyzed after surviving torture. Reunites with family & cries for forgiveness from his Mom :)

For more background on the Libyan Revolution and links to lots of information see my other writings at the DailyKos and WikiLeaks Central:
Abdul Rahman Gave his Eyes to See the End of Qaddafi
BREAKING: Secret files reveal Dennis Kucinich talks with Qaddafi Regime
BREAKING: Libyan TNC won't extradite Lockerbie bomber
Who really beat Qaddafi?
#Feb17: @NATO Please help MEDEVAC wounded from #Libya
What should those that opposed NATO's intervention in Libya demand now?
BREAKING: Qaddafi's Tripoli Compound Falls!
Does PDA Support Qaddafi?
BREAKING: Operation Mermaid Dawn, the Battle to Liberate Tripoli is Joined
Helter Skelter: Qaddafi's African Adventure
Qaddafi's Long Arm
SCOOP: My Lai or Qaddafi Lie? More on the 85 Civilians presumed killed by NATO
Did NATO kill 85 Libyan Villagers As Qaddafi Regime Contends?
CCDS Statement on Libya - a Critique
The Assassination of General Abdul Fattah Younis
NATO over Tripoli - Air Strikes in the Age of Twitter
How Many Libyans has NATO Killed?
Qaddafi Terror Files Start to Trickle Out!
Have Libyan Rebels Committed Human Rights Abuses?
Tripoli Green Square Reality Check
Behind the Green Curtain: Libya Today
Gilbert Achcar on the Libyan situation and the Left
NATO slammed for Libya civilian deaths NOT!
2011-07-01 Qaddafi's Million Man March
NATO's Game Plan in Libya
February 21st - Tripoli's Long Night
Did Qaddafi Bomb Peaceful Protesters?
Tripoli Burn Notice
Libyans, Palestinians & Israelis
'Brother' Qaddafi Indicted plus Libya & Syria: Dueling Rally Photofinishs
An Open Letter to ANSWER
ANSWER answers me
2011-06-22 No Libyans allowed at ANSWER Libya Forum
Are they throwing babies out of incubators yet?
Continuing Discussion with a Gaddafi Supporter
Boston Globe oped supports Gaddafi with fraudulent journalism
2011-04-13 Doha summit supports Libyan rebels
Current Events in Libya
Amonpour Plays Softball with Gaddafi
Arming Gaddfi
North African Revolution Continues
Is Libya Next? Anonymous Debates New Operation