Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Privilege of Being Arab

Being a budding social constructionist, academic in the social sciences, and feminist I'm often exposed to many criticisms of the system. Why are things the way they are? Do they need to be that way? Who benefits from the way they are? who loses? Within the slew of criticisms one which has hit home many times is the criticism of racism and white privilege. How does it benefit White people, often unbeknownst to them, and how does it disadvantage me, also often unbeknownst to me. I've had many chances to think of it and notice. I will write about that at another time.

Today though I wanted to draw attention to a similar and equally as disturbing a phenomenon, especially for those of us South Asians. And this is the idea of Arab nationalism as racism. Now, some may accuse me of being racist right at the get go, but let me say, this is not about aimlessly and uselessly criticizing a group of people. This is rather an attempt to criticize the power imbalances in this world, especially in the Muslim world, which have often lead to unfair treatment. Unfair treatment from the institutional to the personal level.

Of course, most South Asians 'know' that Arabs think less of us. From my conversations on the topic with South Asian friends, it seems to be understood. From the stories which come out of the Middle East it appears that our fellow South Asians are often abused and exploited. No doubt many educated and privileged South Asians have made their way to the Middle East for the exalted oil money but this doesn't cease the manifestation of racism. Usually, these educated professionals are paid less than their Arab (and often Western) counterparts. And if that isn't enough Arab nationalism seems to have snuck itself into our religion as well.

It seems so that our South Asian brethren who travel to these oil rich countries become mesmerized by the Arab style/version of Islam. For generations we non-Arab Muslims have been under the false impression that Arabs are better Muslims than us; that their knowledge of Islam is greater than ours. No doubt there are Arab Muslims with great Islamic knowledge, just as there are Muslims with great Islamic knowledge among all nations. However, the reverence for Arabs among non-Arab Muslims has become epidemic. Many aspects of what we consider Islam trace back to Arab culture, and not Islam itself. The hijab and niqab are just a couple of examples of them. Neither the hijab nor the niqab are mandated in the Qur'an, nor is there strong evidence that either are either obligatory nor encouraged.

By buying into the propaganda, as I like to call it, we have given rise to Arab privilege. Somehow, we believe, eating, dressing, talking, behaving like an Arab makes us better it the eyes of God; it grants us certain privileges that being a non-Arab does not. How many times have we seen a Pakistani brother in traditional Arab garb, or a Pakistani sister don the abbaya instead of a loose pair of shalwar kameez?

However, the most detrimental impact of Arab racism toward non-Arabs is the psychological impact of the inferiority complex which many of us suffer from. Muslims of non-Arab cultures are shunning their own culture for that of the Arab countries, falsely believing they are being better Muslims. We feel ashamed of our 'naive' and 'ignorant' cultures. We believe our people are stupid, simple, and jahil. We look down upon our own roots. We ignore the richness in our own cultures. But what if our beautiful cultures die out? Isn't that what the racism of the West did to many cultures of the East? Will we allow this to happen within the East?

One of the best ways to combat racism is education. Educate the racists about those whom they hate, and educate those whom they hate about the racism they encounter. Those of us non-Arab Muslims (as well non-Muslims of non-Arab, non-White background) must become aware of this racism and help educate those who 'hate on us.' We must tell them that we are not inferior, that our cultures are precious to us, that those of us who are Muslims are equal to them.

Did the Prophet (pbuh) not say:

No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. Nor does a white man have any superiority over a black man, or the black man any superiority over the white man. You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay.

However, I realize this will be a difficult task. We have been so brainwashed to believe that what the Arabs do will get us into heaven. We should not be listening to our bhangra music; we should not be wearing our saris; even our shalwar kameezes are too provocative and we should be wearing their abbayas and gowns. But we need to become more confident in our own abilities to understand God's word. God's word is after all for all of us and not the exclusive property of the Arab nation to do with it whatever they like and present us with the end result. We too need to be involved in the process and we will have to demand that.

Also, for a great analysis of the issue check out Muslimah Media Watch's Fatemeh Fakhraie's article at AltMuslim: The Arabization of Islam.


Jehanzeb said...

Very well written as always ; )

Arab nationalism is distorting the image of Islam and it even makes non-Arab Muslims think they have to be Arab in order to be Muslim. Any kind of uber-nationalism will narrow the mind and create a superiority complex. I wish more people would follow what the Prophet said and truly acknowledge that Islam is a universal faith for all peoples.

Fatemeh said...

Oooh, thanks for the name drop.
And I'd choose the shalvar kamiz over a chador any day.

Melinda said...

Thank you for writing this!

Farheen said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this. I think it was a long time coming for me. I find myself hyper sensitive to power imbalances and this is one which I think we Muslims do not address enough. I think a part of the problem is that Arabs in North America are also a marginalized and stigmatized group and so of course we don't want to add to that marginalization and stigmatization. But I think if we at least address it within our own community we may be able to reduce the problem and try avoiding stigmatizing Arabs further.