Obama inspires Black Iraqi freedom movement

Iraqi and US military forces will beef up security ahead of landmark provincial elections set for Jan. 31, when up to 15 million Iraqis could go to the polls in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Already candidates have been targeted for death. On Dec. 31 unidentified gunmen shot Mowaffaq al-Hamdani, a candidate for Mosul, and on January 3 a member of the Kurdish Communist Party was killed by unknown assailants in Kirkuk. (AFP, Jan. 8) Among those who will be fielding candidates for the first time are leaders of Iraq’s traditionally marginalized Black community, who say they were inspired to run by Barack Obama‘s victory in the US. “Obama’s win gave us moral strength,” said Jalal Chijeel, secretary of the Free Iraqi Movement. “When he became a candidate, so did we.”

Chijeel says that after centuries of oppression, Iraqis of African origin are not represented in top office, and suffer disproportionately from poverty and illiteracy. Although reliable census figures are not available, Chijeel says there are some 300,000 Black Iraqis in the southern city of Basra alone.

“To this day Blacks are not given their rights,” Chijeel said. “We don’t see blacks in local councils, in parliament or cabinet or as ambassadors… we have educated people, doctors, graduates, but to our great regret we still have no importance.” The Free Iraqi Movement’s electoral candidates are teachers, engineers and office workers.

In Basra’s largely Black district of Zubayr, the inhabitants are largely the descendants of East Africans brought by Arab landowners to work as slaves, draining marshes in the hot and humid south. Following a revolt in 869 AD, the Africans seized Basra and even took parts of Iran. But by 883 the uprising was crushed, its leader’s head delivered to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. “From that time until now, the Black has had no senior role in society,” Chijeel said. “They suffered as slaves or servants, and worse. They did the most despised jobs.”

The word “abd” is Arabic for slave, and even though slavery was abolished in Iraq in 1924, it persisted for many years and the word is still widely used to describe Blacks. The Free Iraqi Movement wants the word “abd” to be banned.

The group also wants Blacks to be a considered an official minority, a status which gives some benefit to Iraq’s Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabaks. “Our fundamental demands are to be considered a minority, to have a paragraph in the constitution protecting Black people and punish those who use the word ‘abd’ as defamation, and we want an apology for the crimes of the past,” Chijeel said.

Basra University history professor Hamid Hamdan took issue with Chijeel’s claims. He said intermarriage was common, as were highly educated blacks in top jobs. He said the Free Iraqi Movement was simply jumping on the bandwagon of sectarianism and ethnic fracture engendered by years of war. “This is opportunism,” he said. “Now that there’s sectarianism and ethnic differentiation, some people think they can use this to achieve a specific aim.” He asserted that abd is used by most Iraqis to simply mean Black person.

Chijeel said you have to be Black to understand. “This word describes a person as a slave, someone with no free will, no dignity, no humanity. There’s no worse word… Black people feel this. Others do not.” (Reuters, Dec. 10)

See our last posts on Iraq, the struggle for Basra and Iraq’s minorities.