The great Black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed in 1919 the “sympathy of Black America” with the struggles of the “colored of India and the colored of Egypt” against British colonialism. “Their forefathers were ancient friends, cousins, blood-brothers in the hoary ages of antiquity,” and while “the modern Egyptian mulatto” may have forgotten his Black roots, Du Bois had not. “But we are all one,” he continued, “the Despised and Oppressed, the ‘niggers’ of England and America.” Du Bois described Egyptians and Indians as they would never have described themselves and he deployed a distinctly American language of race to express his solidarity with others. But Du Bois also admitted that “We of America fight the great fight of Peace—we agitate, we petition, we expose, we plead, we argue. It is a long, slow, humiliating path but for us War, Force, Revolution are impossible, unthinkable.”1 If in this moment Du Bois awkwardly universalized a Black American history of racism, his call for solidarity of the oppressed in the face of colonial supremacy nevertheless raises the question of how to translate discrepant historical experiences, each of which develops its own political and moral vocabulary, its own imperative of anticolonialism, and its own temporality, into a single frame of analysis.

My use of Du Bois here is to think through fundamentally coeval, yet different, histories, vocabularies, and trajectories of discrimination and political community in the United States and the Middle East—and what might be gained by juxtaposing these different trajectories. How, more specifically, to think of the modern problem of sectarianism that so obviously haunts the pluralism of the ravaged Middle East together with the problem of racism and a powerful US sovereignty that so preoccupied Du Bois and that continues to haunt America. And how to do both while attending to the crucial differences in each.

Orientalist scholarship of the Middle East has long resisted thinking of discrepant Western and Middle Eastern experiences together as dynamic and ultimately relatable forms of secular human activity. It is has often dismissed or belittled the currents of antiracism and anticolonialism that motivated Du Bois and his Arab, African, and Asian contemporaries. Far removed from the people and societies they studied, Orientalists consistently idealized and deracialized Western history as the universal secular standard that exposed in their eyes the allegedly less enlightened and more sectarian Middle East. They ignored (yet in many instances reflected) white supremacy in the West and elided the fundamental constitutive role of Western colonialism in sectarianizing the modern Middle East. More recent scholarship has pushed back strongly against many of the Orientalist assumptions about a perpetually sectarian East, but has, in its own way, affirmed the privileged place of the West: either by applying the latest “metropolitan” theories to case studies in the Middle East; or by epistemologically privileging necessary criticisms of Western liberalism, and its racial formations, over other histories and genealogies of political exclusion and discrimination.

The critical study of racism and “race relations” in the United States responds to the history of white American settler colonialism and anti-Black slavery in a republic that espoused liberty but enslaved Africans and their descendants. In the modern Middle East, however, racist anti-Arab and anti-Muslim Western colonialism, sectarianism, anticolonial nationalism, and “postcolonial” political tyranny have consistently framed debates about coexistence, equality, and liberation. The keyword in the American lexicon of inequality and citizenship is racism; in the Middle East, the keywords are colonialism and sectarianism.

The “American century” was a largely colonial one for the Arabs. British and French colonialists adeptly weaponized the historic religious and ethnic pluralism of the Arab East in the name of benevolent Western colonial rule over feuding native sects after the First World War. The Western-backed Zionist drive to build an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine triumphed over ecumenical Arabism in 1948 and plunged the Levant into repeated wars. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 inaugurated new dystopian conflicts between “Sunnis,” “Shiis,” and “Kurds” across the Levant and introduced the new scourge of the Islamic State (ISIS). Finally, the seemingly unshakeable grip of despotic and nominally postcolonial Arab regimes in Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia has massively escalated sectarian antagonisms between Arabs themselves, as well as between Arabs and Kurds and others who suffer under these regimes. Because of this geopolitics, in fact, the belief in sectarianism as racism has gained significant traction in the Middle East itself, primarily to signify how the militarization of communal solidarity dehumanizes others of different sects and ethnicities. The states set up by the Western empires have become adept at manipulating religious and ethnic differences to crush domestic dissent. Their victims, in turn, see their oppressors in singularly monolithic sectarian terms.

To be sure, both racism and sectarianism are global phenomena that reflect how Western colonialism and racial capitalism have shaped and distorted diversity in the modern world. They present differently if ubiquitously across the world. Yet when one speaks of sectarianism or communalism in the Middle East one often indicates, grosso modo, antagonistic relationships between different religious and ethnic communities much the same way racism is often understood to reflect antagonisms between races. This notion of sectarianism as racism conveys how members of different communities feel objectified; how belonging to the “wrong” community deprives one of job opportunities, resources, marriage prospects, visibility, credibility, or, conversely, how belonging to the “right” community opens possibilities and prospects otherwise firmly shut to those who do not belong. Sectarianism as racism fixes an age-old identity on others that facilitates their dehumanization. As the Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemeni, or Syrian civil wars, and countless other conflicts across the world between competing ethnic or religious or tribal or racial communities attest, sectarianism justifies and rationalizes brutality. But this understanding of sectarianism as racism misses how political sectarianism in the Middle East, unlike racism in the United States, also reflects communal power-sharing arrangements between political elites who cooperate across sectarian lines. Most of all, this understanding does little to disturb the insidious comparative optic that effaces the edifice of Western racism to judge the failings of the Middle East. It merely replaces the Orientalism of the Western colonialist with that of the embittered, desperate, or disillusioned native overwhelmed by sectarianism. The colonial mantra “they are backward” has become nativized as “we have failed.”

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There is, however, a different way to think of the relationship between sectarianism and racism that can help translate discrepant experiences empathetically while also insisting on their differences. Both sectarianism and racism take for granted the perpetual existence of the object of their claims, whether these are known as sects or as races. Both involve immense cultural, political, ideological, and legal work to ensure the apparent inevitability and immutability of sects and races—what Barbara and Karen Fields identify as “racecraft” in the United States is paralleled by what we should think of as sectcraft in the Middle East. Both are tied to distinctive modern state formations that claim to uphold the equality of their citizens. Both have been implicated in the parallel but discrepant translations of the massive upheaval of the nineteenth-century revolution of citizenship and sovereignty that reconstituted hitherto explicitly and overtly discriminatory politics. Both nevertheless substantially diminished the emancipatory possibility of equal citizenship and worked to undercut the inclusion of those groups and communities which had been demarcated as falling outside the boundaries of the political community. And both, crucially and finally, have been the object of concerted criticism by parallel formations of antiracist and antisectarian thinkers and activists in the United States and the Middle East, respectively.

The situation of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Islamic empire was obviously not the same as that of Black Americans, just that they posed parallel ideological and political conundrums about how to be drawn into a political community that had hitherto formally excluded them. The exclusion of Black Americans was egregious, for it reflected their wholesale dehumanization in a US republic that embraced the political and racial economy of chattel slavery, which was only abolished following the US Civil War. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the Tanzimat reforms between 1839 and 1876 transformed the Islamic empire into an Ottoman state of all its nominally equal citizens. Muslim subjects who had been privileged legally and ideologically over non-Muslim dhimmis now became equal with them. The point is that these transformations across an ocean and sea were coeval, not that they were experienced the same way. Non-Muslims were neither persecuted systematically nor racialized as inferior.

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It was not the Ottoman world that cynically twinned the words “separate” and “equal.” Notwithstanding considerable Black resistance and those radical abolitionists who supported their liberation, a ferocious white backlash against Black emancipation and citizenship thwarted Radical Reconstruction, instituted a new system of segregation in the US South known as Jim Crow (upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1896), and openly consolidated racism across the United States, the legacy of which is still evident today. Whereas the Ottomans admitted the testimony of non-Muslims in secular courts after the mid-nineteenth century, the California Supreme Court invalidated the testimony of Blacks, mulattoes, Indians, Chinese, and all non-whites against whites accused of murder in 1862. In the Ottoman world, there was no Muslim equivalent to the KKK, nor was there a systematic backlash against the enfranchisement of non-Muslims. Whereas the terrible anti-Christian Damascus massacre of 1860 was the exception to the rule of modern coexistence in the Ottoman Arab Mashriq, Black American freedmen were subjected to a reign of terror in the half century following the end of the US Civil War—from the New York City riot in 1862 to the horror of the anti-Black Tulsa massacre in 1921. In the Mashriq, in fact, the 1860 massacre provoked and consolidated a new, if often conservative, ecumenical community that transcended sectarian differences and that transformed what had always been a shared culture into the bedrock of national communities in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were considered equally “civilized” citizens of the Ottoman Empire. From the outset, US ecumenism was heavily racialized: it involved white Protestants of different denominations and Catholics (and eventually Jews) but not Blacks, who were forced to worship in segregated churches across the US South. The elaboration of racist white reconciliation between white North and South depended on firmly closing the door of emancipation in the face of Black Americans and further dehumanizing and eradicating Native American tribal sovereignty.

External, colonial factors played a huge role in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. European powers insisted that the Ottoman state de-Islamify, but also demanded that the reforming state uphold the “ancient privileges” of Christian communities. They forced the Ottoman state to create communal administrative structures that distinguished between Muslim and non-Muslim in the name of equity and rational government. At the same time, they colonized and alienated huge swathes of the empire’s territory. These factors consolidated both Muslim defensiveness and a politics of overt political sectarianism that were totally missing from the US phenomenon of racism.

This last point is perhaps the most crucial to understanding a key difference between the problem of sectarianism in the Middle East and racism in the United States. The latter reflects the power of a single, expanding sovereign state that forces all within its reach to conform to its ambit. The former reflects the weakness of a diminishing sovereign force desperately trying to shore up its territorial and political integrity. The vast majority of Black Americans had to survive their condition as second-class citizens or fight for their rights as Americans. As Du Bois himself noted in 1919, they had no possibility of successfully rebelling against the United States—notwithstanding Garveyism, or the later emergence of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.

Racism in the United States thus involved white majority domination of a set of clearly subordinated minorities whose legal classification (“Negro” and “Indian”) reflects this US domination. The term “minority” in American parlance reflects the power of the white-dominated US state that adjudicates the fate of minority communities in this state—in either a liberal or illiberal direction. While Black men and women could and did resist and build transnational solidarities that cut across the Black Atlantic, European powers would not, and in any case could not, intervene on their behalf against the United States.

Sectarianism in the modern Middle East, by contrast, was from the outset implicated in European colonialism and encroachment in Ottoman affairs. Several sectarian communities in the empire could and did look abroad for succor—Maronites to France, Assyrians to Britain, and Armenians to Russia. They built transnational sectarian patronage networks that often had one crucial node in major European capitals and that depended on and appealed to European power. Minorities in the Middle East invoked the specter of the newly nationalized Muslim majority encroaching upon the rights and traditions of religious or ethnic minorities, but they also appealed directly for Western colonial “protection.” The perversity of the Ottoman Turkish CUP’s genocide of the Armenians in 1915 reflected the ultimate wartime breakdown of the Ottoman system, not its racial apotheosis. The genocide was not akin to the relentless and systematic logic of the US extermination of its indigenous populations, who were from the outset excluded from the American body politic. The “trail of tears” by which tens of thousands of Cherokees were deported across the Mississippi reflected a settler-colonial imperative that took its relentless course across a century, culminating in the decimation of indigenous Indians in the Plains and in the West. The deportations and killings of Armenians and Assyrians during the First World War reflected the advent of a xenophobic and bitter Ottoman Muslim nationalism that reversed the logic of centuries of prior coexistence in the Ottoman lands.

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The aftermath of the First World War redoubled the intensity of anti-Black racism in the United States and inaugurated a new era of sectarian colonization of the Middle East. These two trajectories of racism and sectarianism converged visibly in Paris in 1919. As the victorious colonial Allies assembled to partition the postwar world, many Blacks and Arabs (and many others from across Asia) traveled separately to the French capital to make their respective cases for self-determination and emancipation. Both anticolonial Arabs and antiracist Blacks saw their demands ignored. If Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau believed utterly in colonialism and empire, Woodrow Wilson believed deeply in white supremacy and paternalism. And if these formal Allies disagreed among themselves about how best to partition the postwar world because of their competing interests, they collectively blessed the racial hierarchy on display at the Conference and enshrined it in the mandate of the League of Nations Charter. Article 22 legitimated “mandates” as a burden of civilization imposed on the “advanced” nations of the world who had to tutor the allegedly less fortunate and clearly darker peoples and communities of the world—both in the post-Ottoman Arab East and in Africa. Despite the obvious intersection between Western racism and colonialism at Paris, the same moment anticipated but did not yet see a corresponding anticolonial and antiracist alliance, precisely because the concerns of anti-Black racism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim colonialism emerged from different contexts, had different temporalities, and thus reflected parallel but not necessarily intersecting histories. Yet as Du Bois himself noted in 1919, the potential for secular solidarity in the face of these twinned injustices was evident—the enduring question was how to imagine, articulate, and enact—and to commemorate—this solidarity without privileging one discourse and experience of oppression over the other.


  1. I thank Esmat Elhalaby for bringing this piece by Du Bois to my attention.