If it really wants to, Iraq can end racism against black citizens

Discrimination is a deeply rooted problem in the country, but its institutions have the tools to fight it

The suffering of the black minority in Iraq, which has gone on for many decades, is a consequence of social, ideological and tribal biases that have prevailed in the Arab world since ancient times. There are 2 million black Iraqis. Their ancestors have lived in the country for centuries, and it is long past time for their treatment in their society to change.

Today, that suffering begins as early as childhood. It is estimated that 10 per cent of children who drop out of schools in Iraq do so because of bullying, and for black children the problem is particularly acute. Social issues for young people are deeper and more complex, because many cannot understand why the discrimination they face is happening to them at all. From what those of us in the black Iraqi community see, many education administrators do not realise the seriousness of the situation.

I lead a civil society group in Basra focused on human rights for black Iraqis. In one incident we witnessed here, a black female student was ranked lower than a non-black student, despite receiving higher marks. Our group had to intervene to remedy the situation, and ensure that the black student received the recognition from her school that she was due.

It continues on into young adulthood, when race begins to hinder the prospect of intermarriage, for both men and women. For those who do intermarry, racism within families is a frequent cause of separation.

And it continues into mature adulthood, too, when black Iraqis face lower job prospects and, by extension, fewer economic rights.

Although people of all colours worldwide have been subjugated or enslaved at some point in their history, in the Arab world not enough attention is given to the fact that black people continue to suffer the effects in the form of discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation.

It is ironic that European countries, who have a less intimate history with black populations, have reached a more advanced consensus on the perils of racism and discrimination than some countries in the Arab world. A landmark moment in this discourse was the signing of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which attests that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and compels all countries to limit the problem of racial discrimination. That declaration, it is worth emphasising, is universal. It must apply throughout the world.

Karima Mubarak, an Iraqi black women’s rights advocate. courtesy: Karima Mubarak
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For those who do intermarry, racism within families is a frequent cause of separation

Iraq, in particular, has taken official steps to subscribe to these values. In 1970, it ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention includes provisions stipulating adequate standards of living and dignity for ethnic minorities.

But implementation is another matter. The country faces challenges not just with respect to the black community, but Roma people, too. In a 2018 report submitted to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Iraqi civil society organisations raised the alarm, citing several human rights violations of Roma and black Iraqis. It outlines how Roma Iraqis are effectively barred from holding government posts because they are denied nationality, and how black Iraqis are excluded from a quota system that, like other minority groups, would ensure them fair representation in institutions like Parliament.

Laws and treaties alone cannot transform the situation. Media organisations in Iraq must do more to highlight the plight of the country’s black community. Instead, a number of Iraqi television stations continue to air so-called comedies that use ethnic slurs and undermine the dignity of minority groups.

Religious institutions, too, have a part to play. It was the Prophet Muhammad who once said, centuries ago, that “there is no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person”. Many of Iraq’s religious leaders could be far more outspoken in promoting these values, which not only underpin the religion espoused by the majority of the population, but are, in fact, also universal.

Schools, as I alluded to earlier, must work to teach Iraqi children from a young age that we are all equal, and that discrimination is something we must all fight together.

So this is where we are now – in the same position, as second-class citizens. It does not have to remain this way.

The key to change lies in transforming the entire national conversation. As things stand, allegations of discrimination are often refuted in the public discourse with counter-claims, in which people accuse those of us who speak out of trying to sow division. Worse, some accuse us of promoting “foreign agendas”. But our plight is an Iraqi plight. Recognising our grievances and healing our wounds is about creating a better Iraq, and realising true national unity. The greatest tragedy is when anyone thinks otherwise.

A nation’s development is, inherently, about change: recognising what beliefs and practices are outdated and which ones are most important to draw a roadmap for a better future.

If Iraq cannot address discrimination on its own, then there is indeed an important role for the rest of the region, and the world at large, to play. The international community and humanitarian organisations can lead by example, and reinforce the message that human dignity is a global principle.

Published: November 19th 2021, 4:00 AM