After the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni, the second major fissure within the Camp of Islam is based on ethnic differences. Here the division is that between the Arabs and the non-Arab Muslims. The latter constitute 80% of the world’s Muslims. Some of them have begun to resent their ill-treatment, and even mass-murder, at the hands of the Arabs. This has happened to the Kurds in Iraq. After more than 182,000 Kurds were killed by Arabs under Saddam Hussein, there was total silence from the other Arabs outside Iraq. Not a syllable of protest. It was the West that clamored for justice. The Iraqi Kanan Makiya was the sole Arab to write about the massacre of the Kurds. The Kurds, who were the most loyal and effective allies of the Americans in Iraq, and have been the most effective fighters against the Islamic State in Syria, now plan to hold a referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. Autonomy is no longer enough. They should be supported, not least because an independent Kurdistan will appeal to Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and weaken all three of those states, none of which is a friend to the West.
In Algeria, the Berbers have suffered, too, from Arab supremacism, but differently from the Kurds. The Arabs have in the past tried to suppress Berber culture and the Berber language, Tamazight, and it was only because of constant protests, including riots in Tizi-Ouzou, that the Berbers finally managed to have their language officially recognized, and been allowed to preserve their Berber culture. But they know that those rights may be withdrawn, as attempts to “arabize” them, by making them forget their own language and culture remain a permanent threat. It’s worth noting that almost all those leaving Islam in France have been Berbers. It’s Berbers, too, who support such secular groups as ‘Riposte laique” (“The Laic Response”). This may reflect unhappiness with a faith that is now recognized, correctly, as linked to Arab suppression of the Berbers.
In Iran, the national narrative includes the story of how Persian poets, such as Firdausi, who wrote the epic “Shahnameh,” managed through their works to preserve the Persian language and resist the imposition of Arabic and Arab culture. It was not an idle worry. The speakers of Berber became a minority in North Africa as arabization followed islamization, In Egypt, Coptic yielded to Arabic. But not in Iran.
Islam is a natural vehicle for Arab supremacism because those who convert are encouraged to take Arab names (which already convinces some that they are, perhaps always have been, Arabs). The extreme example of this is surely all those Sayeeds in Pakistan who claim descent from the Quraysh, the Tribe of the Prophet himself. It is as if in the middle of the Congo various Congolese took not just Belgian first names but Belgian last names and, speaking French to boot, insisted that they were descended from a long line of Belgians.
Then there is the insistence that the Qur’an must be read by Believers, not only in Arabic, but in the classical Arabic of Muhammad’s day (or so it is claimed). It was not until Ataturk commissioned a Qur’an, and a tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) in Turkish, that the until-then immutable practice was changed. Even today, the Qur’an in any language but Arabic is regarded by Muslims as inferior. Compare this to the Christian missionaries who cheerfully went about their task, translating the Gospel into many different local tongues, and in many cases – especially in Africa – managed thereby to preserve languages that otherwise had never been written down. They were bringing what they thought was the Word of God, and were happy to do so, when necessary, in whatever local language it would best be understood. In the world of Islam, Arabic has pride of place, and reading the Qur’an should ideally be done in Arabic. Many non-Arabs have to endure memorizing large amounts of the Qur’an in a language they do not understand.
Another aspect of the Arab supremacism fostered by Islam is that the models of behavior, the men who were contemporaries of Muhammad as well as Muhammad himself, those whose manners and customs constitute the Sunna that provides examples of right living, are all Arabs of the seventh century. The spectacle of many Muslims, living thousands of miles from Arabia, and nearly 1400 years later than those models, dressing like seventh-century Arabs, depresses but should not surprise.
To sum up: Everything about Islam encourages Believers to think of Arabs as superior to all other Muslims. The message of Islam was given to an Arab, and in his language. Muslims are prostrate in prayer five times a day, turned Arabia-wards, toward Mecca. Muslims are required, if physically and financially able, to make the Hajj to Mecca, in Arabia. Muslims must emulate the customs and dress of seventh-century Arabs. Many non-Arab Muslims have taken Arab names, to give themselves a pseudo-Arab identity. Some non-Arabs do more than take Arab names. but also call themselves “Sayyids,” thus give themselves a false lineage as descendants of the Prophet himself.
Many of those who have grown up within Islam, and left it, have — at least if they are not Arabs themselves – begun to recognize the ways in which Islam is, to repeat the formula above, a vehicle for Arab supremacism. The late Anwar Sheikh, a well-known apostate, who left Pakistan for safe refuge in Wales, titled his main work “Islam: The Arab National Religion.” It’s a book that the Western world would do well to have translated into all the major languages of Islam — Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish, Siyasa — and distribute, for free, far and wide. It is an explosive subject, and potentially the most damaging of the fissures that exist within the Camp of Islam. For fully 80% of the Muslims are not Arab, and if even half of them can be encouraged to recognize the link between Islam and Arab supremacism, which could lead to questioning the faith, and possibly even promote apostasy (in Christianity, unlike in Islam, all ethnicities are truly equal), this could significantly weaken the Camp of Islam.
In the case of Arab Muslims, the concept of Arabness, ‘Uruba, is so entangled with Islam that it would be difficult for all but a handful of Arabs to turn their backs on Islam. It says in the Qur’an that the Muslims are the “best of peoples.” And according to Al-Tabari and many other Arab writers, Arabs are the best of Muslims. Arab identity reinforces Islamic identity. And the reverse is also true: a non-Arab identity, as with the Berbers, Kurds, Iranians, and Turks, can work to undermine an Islamic identity, especially among those who have come to fully understand all the ways that Islam has been, and remains, as should be by now a fixed formula, easy to remember, “ a vehicle for Arab supremacism.”