Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 July 2020

Black Iraqis say George Floyd's death sheds light on their own centuries-long plight

The community, many of whom are descendants of African slaves, want recognition as a minority group

African-Iraqi men are calling for equal representation and rights. December 6, 2008. Reuters   
African-Iraqi men are calling for equal representation and rights. December 6, 2008. Reuters   

The death of George Floyd during his arrest in the US city of Minneapolis last month has shed light on the plight of another community: Black Iraqis.

They say racial discrimination against them is on par with the racism experienced by African Americans, sometimes even surpassing it, as they not only face a lack of recognition, but also economic, political and social atrocities.

Many of them are descendants of African slaves brought to Iraq and have lived in the southern city of Basra for centuries.

They want recognition as a minority group whose rights should be protected, but some told The National that their demands have been ignored by the Iraqi government.

Many say they are unfairly represented and want to prohibit being called “slaves”, especially as the burdens of their ancestors continue to haunt them.

The killing of Mr Floyd has put the global spotlight on racism, one that Black Iraqis say has been brushed off by authorities.

Members of Iraq’s black community, estimated to be around 2 million, have shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Footage that gripped the world showed a white police officer kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck to pin him to the ground for more than nine minutes went viral.

The movement calls for an end to racism and police abuse.

Mr Floyd’s killing has raised awareness in Iraq about the government's neglect of Iraqi-African rights, Mohammed Falih, a 31-year-old photographer from Basra, told The National.

“What happened to Floyd must never happen again, it is not only a Black issue, but is a matter that concerns people from all over the world, we will keep fighting until racism ends,” Mr Falih said.

He says getting employment in Iraq has been very tough for those of African origin.

“Getting a job is like a dream, both the government and private sectors see us as second class citizens in the community,” Mohammed Falih.

“Getting a job is like a dream, both the government and private sectors see us as second class citizens in the community,” he said.

For decades, Black Iraqis have been humiliated, degraded and have had their dignity taken away from them, Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzaq, founder of the People of Brown Skin movement, told The National.

“Blacks have lived in Iraq as slaves for centuries, they are among Iraq’s most poorest and vulnerable, which is a testament to the fact that racism in Iraq is worse than what exists in America,” Mr Razzaq said.

“The equality that the constitution talks about is a lie," he said.

Mr Razzaq, who lives in Basra, said the community wanted to hold a vigil for Mr Floyd but due to the coronavirus restrictions they were unable to carry it out.

He has also co-founded the Free Iraqis Movement, which calls for equal rights.

Its goal includes amending the Iraqi Constitution to ban discrimination against blacks, getting them elected to parliament and to have a fair chance at getting employment.

We want to have our dignity back and to end social discrimination. The government must compensate us for what we have missed out on, Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzaq.

Blacks in Iraq have been relegated to menial jobs or work as musicians and dancers.

“Some prefer to keep the jobs of their ancestors such as being servants in the homes of tribal sheikhs. Very few have managed to cross the racial barriers,” he said.

Mr Razzaq demanded that Black Iraqis have their "dignity back and to end social discrimination."

“We want the government to compensate us for what we have missed out on,” he said.

There has been virtually no attention on discrimination against Black Iraqis, they say.

Domestically they are not seen as a minority group entitled to formal measures to increase their representation in state institutions, Miriam Puttick, Civilian Rights Officer at Minority Rights Group, told The National.

“We continue to receive reports, primarily from Basra, about instances of discrimination against Black Iraqis in the workplace and elsewhere. Nor has there been any major progress at the political level,” she said.

It is still common today to hear references to black Iraqis as “slaves,” whether on the street, in the workplace, or even from official figures, Ms Puttick said.

Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Baghdad said they have taken racist discriminators to court.

“We are working with some of the Black Iraqi representatives and have filed a lawsuit against an institution part of the culture ministry that held a play that promoted racial discrimination,” Mr Al Bayati said.

The play described Black people in Iraq as “slaves and monkeys” and the case against the organisation is ongoing, he said.

“We also filed another lawsuit against an Iraqi judge in Basra who described those who complained against the play as slaves,” Mr Al Bayati said.

Updated: June 18, 2020 04:18 PM

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