When I came across the murder video, I was horrified, I was angry, I was disgusted, but as many people have expressed by now, I was not surprised. Why? Because it is not the first time and it will not be the last time a man is dehumanised, however pessimistic this may sound.
I had just started reading Frantz Fanon’s The wretched of the earth (1961), a brutally honest reflection on colonisation and on the future of the African people, a severe call to unshackle ourselves from the colonial narratives that supported white supremacy. Stuck in my student room in this little Scottish town, my protest could only be individual, a commitment to reflect, to question this reality including the bias I myself held, so I continued reading with a sense of urgency. Every page seemed as though it was speaking to us, to the struggles people are facing today. One theme was recurring, overpowering all the others: dehumanisation. I read pages upon pages detailing the pseudo-scientific arguments for the bestiality of the African people, my people. Every word was like a blade slashing my heart. For a taste of the crudity: a renowned French professor of Psychiatry Antoine Porot wrote in 1935 that “The native of North Africa, whose superior and cortical activities are only slightly developed, is a primitive creature whose life, essentially vegetative and instinctive, is above all regulated by his diencephalon” (Fanon, 1961: p. 299). According to him, the native was completely or almost completely deprived of emotivity yet aggressive and impulsive, mentally puerile, but lacking the curious mind of the Western child, lost in detail, but incapable of grasping concepts (ibid., p. 298). All these ideas were taught as truth to medical students in the colonies, some indigenous people themselves. I kept telling myself: “Safaa, calm down. Breath. This was a long time ago. Breath.” Then I came across a leaked WhatsApp conversation of French police officers mocking the supposed hypersexuality and aggressivity of the black man. I read on. On this page, accounts of preventive massacres of indigenous population by colons. On this one, accounts of tortures. Again, “Safaa, stop crying. Our grandparents fought through this.” Then. I gasped as the US president tweeted, with the grimmest of nonchalance, to call for the violent oppression of his own people: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The scale was obviously different (denying it would be disregarding the suffering of our forefathers and the sacrifices of our fathers to push for equality), but somehow it all had this same taste: bitter, nauseously bitter.
Every single time I would ask, incredulous, how people could do or say such things, one element imposed itself: dehumanisation. Because it was clear to me that the dehumanisation which, for centuries, allowed the exploitation and degradation of dignified human beings had left strong taints in our minds. Violence is so much easier to inflict on the one which we see as other, as less, as beast. Injustice is so much easier to disregard when those which it oppresses are far away, physically or symbolically.
Dehumanisation does not exist only across “racial” lines and it has not been the monopoly of Europe over human history. But the recency and gravity of European colonisation and slave trade as well as their on-going impacts on power dynamics in contemporary life leads me to focus on it. As I finally reached the conclusion of what had been a painful read, I was struck by one sentence. “Europe has declined all humility and all modesty; but she has also set her face against all solicitude and all tenderness” (p. 311). The centrality of arrogance in the phenomenon of racism might seem to some horribly apolitical and potentially cowardly, but it is to me so incredibly profound.
This sentence reminded me of a passage in the Qur’an counting Adam’s creation and Satan’s fall from Heaven. It is on this, after such a long introduction, that I want to reflect today.
Indeed, We created you, then We formed you, then We said unto the angels, “Prostrate yourself before Adam.” And they all prostrated, save Iblis; he was not among those who prostrate. He [God] said, “What prevented thee from prostrating when I commanded thee?” He said, “I am better than him. Thou hast created me from fire, while Thou hast created him from clay.” He said, “Get down from it [Heaven]! It is not for thee to wax arrogant here. So go forth! Thou art surely among those who are humbled.” (Qur’an, 7: 11-13).
First, I believe I should provide some context for the non-Muslim readers. In the Islamic tradition, Satan, who is also called Iblis, is believed to have been one of the most respectable, learned and devout of jinns (invisible beings who just like humans possess free will and will be judged by God). He served God in Heaven until the day that God created mankind. After proportioning Adam, God ordered the angels to bow to him. Exegetes disagree on the meaning of that prostration. Some mention that humans before their fall from Heaven could have been of a higher station than angels and that the prostration was a recognition of Adam’s spiritual greatness, others consider that the act was largely symbolic and that the angels were ultimately bowing not to Adam but to God and submitting to His will. Iblis, however, felt that prostrating to Adam was beneath him. He felt that he was intrinsically superior. To justify his behaviour, he mentioned not his character or devotion to God, but his essence: “Thou hast created me from fire, while Thou has created him from clay”. As a result of this arrogance and what is in essence the first recorded act of racism, Iblis fell from grace and was cursed till the Day of Judgement (Qur’an, 38:72). Since then, Iblis engaged in a mission to cause mankind to err from God’s path.
This passage highlights the severity of arrogance and its potential in alienating the individual from God’s Way. We thus see that Satan’s initial disobedience was caused by arrogance. That arrogance poisoned his heart and made him to continue upon error even though repentance was an option (in the Islamic tradition, Adam and Eve repented to God after their sinning and were forgiven before descending to earth). Why? Because arrogance leads to a sense of entitlement, it creates this perception of the world where the self is the end-all, be-all. What becomes overtime an unwavering and shameless self-importance is corrosive to the heart. Slowly, one’s heart hardens and becomes impermeable to God’s call, a call of mercy and justice. Arrogance acts as a thick veil which hides from us our shortcomings. We fail to see our flaws and feel superior to others. We come to believe that others are objectively subservient to us and justify our domination over them. Frantz Fanon spoke of the civilising mission as follows: “On the unconscious plane, colonialism therefore did not seek to be considered by the native as a gentle, loving mother who protects her child from a hostile environment, but rather as a mother who unceasingly restrains her fundamentally perverse offspring from managing to commit suicide and from giving free rain its evil instincts” (p. 210). This reminds me of far-rights comments made about Afro-Americans supposedly living a better life in the USA than they would have in Africa if their ancestors had not been enslaved or comments about Afro-American criminality being the real enemy holding down the black community. If that does not call to mind the colonial discourse equating independence with the return to the Middle ages for the African natives, I don’t know what does.
Anyhow, racism makes us think that the other is not only less than us, he has what he has, he is what he is only through us. Thus, we have rights upon him, thus he is not our equal. Thus, it is not on man’s neck that he knelt, it was not his equal who begged for mercy, “I can’t breathe officer, please”. Maybe he did not see him as non-human, but certainly he saw him as less of a man.
Another lesson that we learn from this verse is that value is ultimately appointed by God and that all His creations have to submit to that. While discussions about clay, and fire, and angels might seem horribly remote from our reality, this means clearly that we as God’s creations have no right to arbitrarily appoint value to people. God explicitly addresses this point in the Qur’an:
“O mankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another. Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you. Truly God is Knowing, Aware.” (Qur’an, 49: 13).
In other words, our diversity is a blessing from God. “Our diversity enriches us” is not a twenty-first century liberal cliché, straight out of la la land like some people mock. It is a fact. In this diversity, the nobility of a man or a woman is not associated with their colour, ethnicity, gender, social status, or wealth. It is dependent entirely on their God-consciousness. That is the unique scale. This beautiful verse concludes on an essential point, namely that piety is not something that is subject to human judgement, because “God is the Knowing, Aware”. He knows that which lies within the breast, whether that is light and piety, or darkness and ignorance. That intention is unknown to us, so we must refrain from judging, from evaluating.
What we learn is the severity of racism, not just racist actions, but also racist attitudes, believes. It is not just wrong; It is satanic. As Satan swore, he comes “upon [mankind] from in front of them and from behind them, and from their right and from their left” to corrupt (Qur’an, 7:17) and we are unfortunately failing to see his cunning. We are calling upon us God’s wrath as he has before. Racism denies the other’s humanity and confines him to a colour, but similarly and paradoxically it also denies the racist’s humanity and confines them to a colour. I hope we take the time to think and realise that we are dignified beings, all of us. I truly believe that when we start to “walk humbly upon the earth” (Qur’an, 25:63), when we lift the veil of arrogance, we will stop and see that the same light, the same spirit shines in our brother’s eyes. A life without self-doubt and humility is a life of injustice.