Other Iraqis openly call them “slaves”, no matter what kind of job they do and they are regularly discriminated against. But recently Iraqi Africans have been fighting back. In 2007, one African Iraqi, the human rights activist, Jalal Thiyab, had formed a political party, the Movement of Free Iraqis, and he used the organization to draw attention to the plight of black Iraqis. For example, one of the things he had talked about was banning the use of the word “abed”, or slave, when it came to black Iraqis.
And in the Movement’s offices there were pictures of the likes of US President Barack Obama and US civil rights activist Martin Luther King hanging up. As another local human rights activist, Hussein Awad, recounts: “There’s this whole culture that many Iraqis just don’t know about. In one of the rooms of their association in Basra, there’s a picture of Martin Luther King. And next to that are two pictures of Barack Obama. Martin Luther King’s principles for protest have become important to African Iraqis who want to protest in a non-violent way too,” Awad explained.
Despite this attitude though, the Movement of Free Iraqis’ founder, Thiyab was assassinated in central Basra, on April 26.
Most of Iraq’s estimated 1 million African Iraqis live in the southern city. It is thought that many of them were originally brought to Basra as slaves over a thousand years ago to help drain the marshes and build the city up.
“[Thiyab] was driving his car down a Basra street,” an eye witness said. “And he was shot by unidentified gunmen at an intersection.”
Shortly before his assassination, Thiyab had held a press conference where he spoke about conditions that many African Iraqis live under. Many locals thought that Thiyab’s campaigning amounted to a kind of heresy.
“Black Iraqis are viewed as inferiors and are excluded and marginalized,” the press statement that followed the conference said. “Many people call them slaves and in the past, they were never able to reach any kind of standing in society. However many of us have overcome these barriers.”
In conducting his various campaigns to educate both Arab Iraqis and African Iraqis, Thiyab often referred to US President Barack Obama. In 2009, African Iraqis celebrated Obama’s success and many became far more politically active as a result. Thiyab had also spent years gathering stories of discrimination and abuse. Many were related to how African Iraqis were treated within schools.
“The election campaign battle was tough,” Thiyab said at his press conference. “But simply the fact that African Iraqis stood for office can be seen as an achievement - it was about overcoming discrimination.” His party had been allied with the party led by Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim and one of Iraq’s three deputy Prime Ministers. Preliminary results indicate that al-Mutlaq’s party didn’t do particularly well in the provincial elections.
Despite Thiyab’s death – he was one of a number of would-be politicians who were assassinated before and after the provincial elections – it seems that others will carry on his work.
“The real solution to this problem of discrimination lies in encouraging the Iraqi government to pass an anti-discrimination law, particularly about hate speech,” Awad says.
Another Arab Iraqi activist, who was in the car with Thiyab on the day he was killed, talks about how the suffering of this whole sector of his own society makes him feel bad - he ran for office in the provincial elections and he said that although he wasn’t black, he would represent the interests of Iraq’s African Iraqis if he got in.