The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
By SAAD SALLOUM JULY 22, 2014
New York Times
BAGHDAD — Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel was tall, funny and handsome, qualities that should have made him a popular man in Basra, Iraq, where he lived. But he was also black, one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been pushed to the margins of society based on their skin color.
In 2003, inspired by the opening of Iraqi society after the American invasion and, later, by the success of Barack Obama in overcoming his own country’s history of racism, Jalal began to push for anti-discrimination laws in Iraq. For his audacity, Jalal was assassinated last year in Basra.
Most estimates show there are about 400,000 Iraqis who trace their origins back to sub-Saharan Africa, most of them living in the south around Basra, though a few push the count as high as two million. There are few written accounts of their early history in the country, though what records do exist show that the first of them arrived in what is now Iraq as slaves as early as the seventh century.
Just as blacks did much later in the United States, blacks in Mesopotamia worked in wealthy homes and in backbreaking agricultural work, including clearing marshland. A series of slave uprisings rocked the region from 869 to 883, but were eventually quelled.
Trading in African slaves — brought from Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean and as far west as Ghana on the Atlantic — continued into the 1920s, when it was finally banned.
But as in America, abolition did not mean an end to discrimination. While a number of laws promise equality, anti-black racism in Iraq pervades everything from housing to jobs to cultural life. Blacks in Iraq are routinely called “abd,” meaning “slave.” They mostly hold menial or low-level jobs.
Still, a distinct black culture has survived. Basra Iraqis often turn to black healers to exorcise evil spirits, to cure them of physical and psychological illnesses — even though, in an attempt to escape discrimination, Iraqi blacks have assumed Sunni, Shiite or other identities.
Jalal’s crime was to believe that this could change. Inspired by both President Obama and his hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he founded the Supporters of Human Freedom in Basra, which advocates for civil rights and a distinct, recognized identity for Iraqi blacks — inspiring so many people to join him that blacks in Basra sometimes called him “Iraq’s Martin Luther King.”
In a country where ethnic divisions are built into the political structure, a strong, defined ethnic identity is critical. Indeed, blacks are almost alone in their lack of government-mandated quotas for elected positions; not a single black has ever achieved high political office.
To build racial unity, Jalal began teaching classes for blacks on their rich cultural heritage. He also helped encourage black Iraqi hip-hop, which erupted as a music scene in southern Iraq after the American invasion.
The music tapped into black musical traditions and expressed — as in the United States — a visceral reaction to discrimination. As the lyrics of one rap song put it: “We say that the past has been defeated, and we will forget it in a time when we bury our dead, everybody has a voice.”
Meanwhile, Jalal ignored threats to his life, which were frequent and very explicit. A year ago, as he left a Basra schoolroom where he had hung a photo of President Obama, gunmen ran him down and shot him to death.
The case has never been fully investigated, a fact that leads even sympathetic Iraqis to shrug: Iraq is a violent place. Many people are gunned down in sectarian violence, their murders unsolved.
Jalal’s assassination was not just racial, but without a doubt political. His photo of President Obama was like a red flag to Shiite political parties, backed by Iran. Jalal insisted that black representatives should stand in elections as blacks, taking votes from Sunni and Shiite parties alike.
In response to the latest Sunni insurgency, the United States is pressuring Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to make his government more inclusive as a way to help halt its disintegration. World attention has focused on the big three ethnic groups: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Such inclusiveness is badly needed, but justice demands that the table be expanded. Iraqis need to recognize that theirs is a multiethnic country, and that respect for minority rights is what makes any country strong.
Since Jalal’s assassination, Iraq’s blacks have slunk back into the shadows. In Basra, blacks have resumed their identification as Shiites or Sunnis. Even Jalal’s family refuses to speak out about what happened to him. They mourn him in private, the tall, handsome husband and father who liked to make people laugh.
Jalal was my friend. The best ways to honor his memory would be a thorough investigation into his assassination, and for Iraq to enact its first-ever anti-discrimination law. Who knows, perhaps one day he will be honored as an Iraqi Martin Luther King — not just by blacks, but by all Iraqis.