Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Continuing Divisions Between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has never been unified politically or culturally. One of the biggest divides in the continent is not only cultural, but also ethnic and indeed racial. That is the divide between the white Arab north and the black south. Many Pan-Africanists like Frantz Fanon have made compelling arguments for forging a single African continental identity from these two groups. But, the differences are not just based upon skin color. The idea that sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa are parts of two separate civilizations has a long pedigree. Among other things it allowed for the justification of enslaving black African Muslims. It was also one of the causes for the two long running civil wars in Sudan. North African countries like Morocco have sometimes found themselves at serious odds with the sub-Saharan consensus on certain issues. For instance the OAU and later AU has supported the Sahrawis in the conflict between Morocco and the POLISARIO over Western Sahara. While the divisions between the whites of North Africa and the blacks of sub-Saharan Africa is opposed by many Pan-Africanists it nonetheless continues to exist.

One element of this conflict I had not considered before is the sexual component. Of course much of the Trans-Saharan slave trade did have a sexual element, not only with regards to women, but also young boys. The sexual exploitation of young boys in North Africa in places like Tangiers Morocco of course continued long after the end of the slave trade. This blog post got me to thinking that such  practices in North Africa and the militant opposition to homosexual activity in sub-Saharan Africa may in fact be linked to the continuing antagonisms between the white Arabized northern portion of Africa and the black sub-Saharan regions. I know that Pan-Africanists like Frantz Fanon who advocated for unity between the two parts of Africa did not mention this aspect. Nor have I seen it mentioned by writers arguing against including the white North as part of a Pan-African project, but rather defining African along purely racial lines. But, it is something that I think needs further research.


Withywindle said...

It's an interesting question, and one I don't have a good answer to myself--nor can I easily find one easily on Google. Which indicates you could do good work on this! But a few idle, preliminary thoughts:

1) Is African antipathy to homosexuality stronger in areas that were directly exposed to the Arab slave trade? If yes, you have a very interesting correlation. If not, you may just have a coincidence.

2) Given that Muslims/Arabs officially condemn homosexuality severely, and privately sanction it, I think we should see if a similar syndrome is going on in Subsaharan Africa. That is, how much actual homosexual practice is there, whatever the rhetoric? I think that there is less homosexual practice in Subsaharan Africa than in the Arab/Muslim world, but I'd be cautious about that statement.

3) Relatedly: since accusing your enemies of homosexuality is an easy trope of polemic, I would want to be very cautious about black African accounts accusing the Arabs of seizing/buying slaves for homosexual purposes. It could be true, it could be not; one would need to check.

4) Relatedly: how far back does anti-homosexuality go in African cultures? It could be age-old, could be recent, could depend on the region. Also worth checking on that.

5) I wouldn't bother framing it against Pan-Africanism, since that seems piffle anyway.

6) You should read Linda Colley's Captives for background. Her thesis, accurate as far as I know: Early English captivity narratives (1600s) about being captured by the Moors center on the threat of Englishmen being raped, registering real fear of powerful Muslims; later ones (1700s) focus on the threat of Englishwomen being raped, more in the way of lascivious entertainment, with the Muslims no longer considered a major threat. It would be a good context for African cultural reactions to the Muslim slave trade. And just generally a good book, as I remember.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Good questions and ones that I wish I had much better answers to.

1. West Africa which had the Trans-Saharan slave trade and East Africa which had the Indian Ocean slave trade both have a lot of antipathy to homosexuality. The laws in Uganda are particularly strict. But, less draconian laws also exist in Ghana. South Africa officially legalized the practice and prohibits discrimination on the basis. However, South Africa due to a much stronger European influence differs from the rest of Africa in a lot of other ways as well.

2. I have no idea how to quantify this. Obviously such practices exist in Ghana despite condemnation from the government and churches. My gut instinct like yours is that it is less prevalent than in North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand this may be a function of a greater literary tradition dealing with the subject in the Islamic world.

3. I am pretty sure that some of the Trans-Saharan slave trade was for this purpose. It is a delicate subject, but the scholars dealing with slavery in the Islamic world all seem to mention it in passing.

4. This is hard to measure. A lot of people claim that indigenous African cultures have always condemned the practice. But, it is hard to know and a lot of the current rhetoric is clearly drawn from the Old Testament. That suggest to me it only became an issue after the arrival of European missionaries.

5. Point well taken. This is an embryonic idea so I was thinking in terms of Black-Arab unity versus conflict in Africa. But, the unity part is as you note not very substantial and probably not relevant in this context.

6. I will look at Colley's work. The historiography on the subject is fairly weak unfortunately.