Across the globe, media report on the prevalence of racism and racial violence. From the horrors of North African migrants perishing in the Mediterranean Sea to the plight of domestic workers in places like Lebanon, the deaths of migrant workers in the Gulf states and police violence targeting Black and brown communities in the United States, these stories highlight the growing recognition that race and state-sanctioned racial violence are global phenomena.

But what exactly do these terms of race and racism, so omnipresent in the public realm today, mean in the context of the Middle East and North Africa? This question does not have a single answer. Race and racism may seem like universal categories that unite people globally, but they are instead deeply rooted in particular and regional histories. Racial formations are always historically specific and grounded in forms of economic, political and social power—no one theory of race can encapsulate its varied experiences.[1]

Race is a way to naturalize hierarchies, and often—though not always—invoke biological traits. While we are perhaps most accustomed to thinking about race in terms of skin color, other features—such as blood lines, kinship structures, religion, geographical origin and even culture or language—can all become markers of race.[2] Race as an analytic concept must be understood alongside adjacent notions such as ethnicity (which often refers to cultural or linguistic differences) or nation (which is embedded in claims for sovereignty or political representation).[3] Once articulated, racial categories are not stable: They shift over time, and various regimes of power can leave racial sediments in their wake. Despite the chameleon-like nature of racial categories, their effects are excruciatingly real for those who suffer from their sharpest edges. As theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, race can be understood as “the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death.”[4]

This issue of Middle East Report, “Race—Legacies and Challenges,” highlights the historical and cultural specificity of racial formation, racialization and racism in the Middle East and North Africa. Histories of Western imperialism across the region, indigenous legacies of enslaved labor and ongoing postcolonial nation-building projects have configured race and racism differently than across the West, where racial ideologies were formed in the crucible of settler colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Articles by Nidhi Mahajan and M’hamed Oualdi discuss the distinct forms of slavery that took place in the Indian Ocean and across the Sahara, while Shreya Parikh looks closely at how Tunisian society is grappling with that legacy. Racial categories continue to be shaped and reshaped by contemporary regimes of migration, labor and value creation. They intersect with other categories of social difference including gender, linguistic and cultural difference, nationality and socioeconomic status. This intersectionality is evident in Sumayya Kassamali’s account of the multiple forms of oppression that African and Asian female migrant domestic workers face in Lebanon. It is evident, also, in Neha Vora and Amélie Le Renard’s discussion of the category “Indian” in the Gulf—a term that denotes at once a nationality, racial formation, and in certain contexts, racist slur. Moreover, it is important to recognize, as Ussama Makdisi states in his interview with Alex Lubin, that race, racial ideologies and racism are not always the sole or predominant way in which geopolitical formations are produced and contested.

Thus, while there are shared global features of race and racism across geographies, this issue demonstrates the need to analyze race and racism locally. What we see in this approach is the necessity of understanding race as a trace of a particular history of colonialism, imperialism and contemporary geopolitical and economic relationships and not as a transhistorical given.

At the same time, it is critical to acknowledge the political currency that anti-racist mobilization and rhetoric anchored in the West holds in the current moment. In tracing the social movements that have arisen in response to racism in the Middle East and North Africa, this issue shows how activists and citizens are making strategic connections across geopolitical borders in their struggle to articulate anti-racist futures. We see this process in Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda’s account of the Collective for Black Iranians in the interview conducted by Beeta Baghoolizadeh. Kounkou Hoveyda describes the assertion of “Black is beautiful” as one of the central objectives of the Collective, which strives to “write into existence” Black and Afro-Iranians with reference to “transnational Blackness.” Nimrod Ben Zeev recounts the history of a similar conversation in Palestine and Israel, where marginalized Palestinian citizens and Mizrahi Jews drew from W.E.B. Du Bois’ conceptualization of the “global color line” as a frame of reference to expose and oppose the racial underpinnings of Zionist colonization.

Connections across borders are not unidirectional. Anti-racist activists in the United States, too, are recognizing the value of linking their experience with movements in other parts of the world. In a recent statement by the Ferguson, Missouri based Congresswoman Cori Bush, for example, she spoke out against a recent wave of Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. “St. Louis and I today rise in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” she stated. “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-war. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period.”

Furthermore, it is not just activist grassroots organizations that are engaging with the Euro-American-based racial justice framework but also political elites. M’hamed Oualdi and Ezgi Güner’s articles bring into view how both the Tunisian and the Turkish governments draw on anti-racist rhetoric to assert their governmental legitimacy, especially in the eyes of their Western interlocutors. Whereas in Tunisia the public commemoration of the abolition of slavery is used to strengthen “the narrative of enlightened reformism” that legitimizes the rule of a Westernized educated elite, the AKP government in Turkey claims Blackness as a racialized metaphor to communicate the historical marginalization of the pious non-elite population that they claim to represent. This “racialized moral regime” then serves as the basis of both the AKP’s populist authoritarianism in the country as well as its geopolitical ambitions in Africa.

This issue invites readers to grapple with the multiple forms of racialization that can be located in a global history of anti-Blackness but which are also entangled with other racial projects. The articles offer a historically and regionally specific conceptual toolkit to analyze race and racism locally in the Middle East, while also paying attention to how the seemingly transhistorical and universal frameworks, metaphors and categories that denote the experience of racialization circulate in various platforms across the region.


[The editors of issue 299, “Race—Legacies and Challenges,” are Elif Babül, Muriam Haleh Davis, Jessica Barnes and Guest Editor Alex Lubin.]





[1] The term “racial formation” comes from Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986).

[2] David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: A Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[3] Paul C. Taylor, Rae: A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford: Polity, 2003).

[4] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) p. 28.


How to cite this article:

The Editors of Issue #299 "Racial Formations in the Middle East," Middle East Report 299 (Summer 2021).

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