When media reports emerged that al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, disparaged President-elect Barack Hussein Obama as a “house negro,” it angered many in the black community. However, it also struck a chord.
The Egyptian physician – who is reportedly Osama bin Laden’s confidant – actually used the phrase “house slave,” but it was later translated as “house negro.”
Al-Zawahiri said, “You [Obama] represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like Malik al-Shabazz or Malcolm X,” who “condemned the crimes of the Crusader West against the weak and oppressed, and he declared his support for peoples resisting American occupation.”
The al Qaeda leader said Obama, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “confirmed” Malcolm X’s definition of a “house slave.” He was referring to Malcolm X’s distinction between slave-era “house Negroes,” who lived comfortably in the big house abetting white supremacy, and “field negroes,” who toiled in the fields under the whip, plotting resistance.
But his metaphor was wrong about Obama: If anything, he would now be the housemaster, not the slave.
What’s more, Al Qaeda is deploying this particular metaphor to offset Obama’s global popularity, particularly in East Africa. Many of these Islamist groups fear the election of a black American president with explicit African roots and symbolic Islamic connections will lessen the anti-American fervor among their recruitment targets.
Although al-Zawahiri overplayed his hand with such a transparent racial ploy, he did manage to draw attention to what could be a troublesome issue for many progressive activists, particular for those who are African-American.
Many advocates of progressive international policies see the United States as “imperialism central.” And for good reason. Stephen Kinzer’s 2006 book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, makes clear this nation’s ignoble history in subverting and deposing foreign governments. Kinzer concludes, “No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores.”
The response to al-Zawahiri’s comments also revealed African-American Muslims have little love for radicalized Islamists. At a news conference in New York City at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial, Educational and Cultural Center, a gathering of African-American Muslim leaders denounced al-Zawahiri’s remarks as “insulting.” The group added, “As Muslims and as Americans, we will never let terrorist groups or terror leaders falsely claim to represent us or our faith.”
The statement also noted that radicalized Islamists have, “historically been disconnected from the African-American community generally, and Muslim African-Americans in particular.”
This was a veiled shot at Arabs’ historic role in the slave trade and the racism still blemishing some Arab nations, such as in Sudan.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam – which is generally separate from other African-American Islamic groups – has been effusive in his praise for Obama. And Farrakhan has made clear his disdain for groups that employ terrorism.
Despite Farrakhan’s aversion to al Qaeda’s tactics, his foreign policy prescriptions probably would please al-Zawahiri and “condemn the crimes of the Crusader West against the weak and oppressed.” With their man Obama now leading the “Crusader West,” where will the Nation of Islam stand when the crusade inevitably continues?
More generally, where will black progressives stand?
No doubt, there will be strong black critics of the Obama administration who will keep the first black president’s feet to the fire.
Others may find more to love about America. If the Obama administration decides to bomb Pakistan’s tribal territories, for example, these supporters, who once may have questioned the wisdom of unilateral bombing, now will urge critics to “understand the bigger picture.”
In October 2002, actor and activist Harry Belafonte called Powell and Rice “house negroes” for their subservience to the Bush administration. He was condemned in the media, but the black community had his back. If Belafonte said the same about Obama today, he would have to take a banana boat back to Jamaica.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.