ORAN, Algeria — For a few years now, families of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been gathering at major street crossings in the large cities of northern Algeria. They come to beg for alms, wearing grotesque outfits: oversize veils for the women, even little girls; cotton djellabas for the men; prayer beads ostentatiously displayed. They say “Allah” too readily and misquote verses from the Koran.
Many black migrants, including those who are not Muslim, are deploying symbols of Islam to appeal to Algerians’ sense of charity. Why? Because poverty helps decode culture better than reflection does, and migrants, lacking shelter and food, are quick to realize that in Algeria there often is no empathy between human beings, only empathy between people of the same religion. ...
The situation wasn’t always like this. For decades Algerians mostly treated blacks with discreet aloofness; only recently has that turned into violent rejection. There are no reliable official statistics, but many migrants here come from Mali, Niger and Libya, and their numbers have increased over the past few years, partly due to instability in neighboring countries, especially Libya, once a main hub of immigration from Africa to Europe.
In Europe, migrants can try to play on the humanitarianism and guilty consciences of their hosts, but in Algeria these days, the Other is visible only through the prism of faith. In the West, racism sees skin color; in Arab countries, it sees religion.
Yet these two forms of racism are related: Westerners deny (or accuse) Arabs, and Arabs in turn deny (or accuse) black Africans. Is there a causal link? Is this a domino effect of negation? Perhaps. In any event, the parallel, the mimesis, is troubling.
But such complexities matter little in this country, and are easily ignored. Although many Algerian Muslims are neither sectarian nor racist, they don’t have much influence among the elites or over public debate. Extremist positions crowd out more moderate religious views. Partly as a result, in Algeria, as in other Arab countries, discourse in the media and among intellectuals is compartmentalized.
On the one hand, there are virulent articles about racism in Europe describing the “Jungle,” a migrant detention center in Calais, France, as something of a concentration camp, or presenting fallacious analyses: “No Work in France if You’re Arab or African,” said one headline in an Islamist newspaper in February. On the other hand, there is no shortage of Ku Klux Klan-worthy arguments about the threat posed by blacks, their perceived lack of civic-mindedness and the crimes and diseases they purportedly bring with them.One aspect of the ideology of anti-racism, which, paradoxically, is itself a form of anti-European racism, is the claim, implicit and sometimes explicit, that only Europeans are capable of it. Racism = Prejudice + Power, goes the argument. Brown people can't be racist because they don't have no Powah. Here is one of the rare acknowledgements that brown people can display prejudice when they are in a position of power. But note how, even here, the writer finds a way to Blame Whitey for it.