Are we racists?

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A Pakistani was watching me intently after prayer, in the Islamic Center of Eugene, Oregon. Later, he smilingly and reluctantly introduced himself. “I noticed your friendliness with non-Arab Muslims. Your children are talking to mine, as we speak. To be honest with you, I felt that was kind of unusual. I find the Gulf people to be rather exclusive. They tend to mingle among themselves. Why is that, brother? Aren’t we supposed to be a big Muslim family? How come my kids have more American friends than Arabs? Why are my American neighbors more accepting of us than Arab neighbors? I lived in Jeddah for ten years, before migrating to the US, but made no connections. In a matter of weeks, my family became part of the community, here.” He observed with a note of sadness.

I tried to explain the language and culture barriers. Pakistanis, Malaysians and Indonesians, too, tend to mix among themselves, I pointed to other groups in the hall. Still, I wasn’t convinced myself.

The truth is that at least two generations of Gulf Arabs are ignorant of other Arabs and Muslims, and unaware of their own history. They were born in good times and felt that they were better than others, especially the underprivileged. But it wasn’t always like that!

In the first half of the 20th century, the Arabian Peninsula was mostly a harsh place in which to live. There were times that were harder than others. Wars, especially World Wars, as well as tribal conflicts, political turmoil and natural disasters made conditions unbearable for many.

In the absence of mineral, agricultural, industrial and skilled human resources, development was way behind the modern world. Those ahead of us included neighbors, such as Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the north; Iran and India to the east; Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to the west.

Seeking better economic and educational opportunities, many, including whole tribes, immigrated via land and sea to these countries. They were welcomed and treated well. Many settled for ages, and only returned after the oil boom made Arabia richer, more developed and more promising.

Trade, cooperation and social communication continued afterwards, as we sought experience, expertise and manpower to help us with our huge development projects. We invited guest workers from these areas and beyond, and they helped us build this part of the Arabian Peninsula into what it never had been in history, and bring us closer to joining the First World club.

Unfortunately, many, especially of our young, are not adequately aware of how the universe revolves. As it turns, luck and privileges change hands. One day we were there, today we are here ... and who knows where we will all be tomorrow.

The new generation also seems to be ignorant of the role others have played in getting us where we are today. They may think we were born privileged and are destined to be. They may think that we have made our fortune on our own, and so have earned the right to enjoy it alone. They need to be educated ... or reeducated about all that.

Recently, we have seen anti-foreigner sentiment flare up again. Social media is full of such sentiment. There is always a reason. There has always been a reason! Sometimes it is political, other times economic, but most of the time, it is just racist!

We have seen this episode before. Yesterday, it may have been against Bangladeshis, today it is might be directed against Africans or South Asians. Tomorrow, we may turn against our Palestinian or Turkish brethren. This is a shame. It is more so because it goes against our sacred Islamic and Arabian values. What have we been educating ourselves about all of these years?

The danger we are facing is great. It is not outside enemies that should concern us. Instead, we should worry more about our enemies inside. The attitudes, beliefs and ignorance that many of us are carrying and spreading are destroying the very core of our standing in this life and the Hereafter. The world views us with the standards that our identity, as the Land of Islam and Arabia, entitles us to. Then come those ugly pictures and voices that make us all look shockingly arrogant, savage and hypocritical. We cannot afford that!

I am calling on all intellectuals, educators and preachers to acknowledge the phenomenon and start working on fixing what needs to be fixed. We should monitor our social media carefully for such bias. Electronic crimes should include hate speech against foreigners.

I hope we all join the effort. We are all responsible and we need to work together to help find a solution. Your thoughts, dear readers, are appreciated.

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi


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