Friday, 8 March 2013

Pirates of Barbary and Racism

I'm reading Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean by Adrian Tinniswood.  It's related to something I'm writing; I know a fair bit about how piracy in the Caribbean and privateering in the Atlantic worked, but next to nothing about piracy in the Middle East and North Africa.  I was looking for information about piracy and (incense) smuggling in the Red Sea specifically, but this book was the closest I could find.

It's a book by a non-Muslim white British man about piracy by mostly Muslim North Africans and Turks against Christian Europeans, so I didn't have terribly high hopes on the Western-gaze front.  On page 14, we have:

That winter, the winter of 2008-2009, marine insurers from all over the world gathered in London to discuss the problem of African piracy. Senior figures condemned the Somali pirates as the scourge of modern shipping, calling them “vermin” and demanding a concerted response from the international community—just as they had in seventeenth-century London.  [...]  Iranian and Pakistani nationals were reported to be joining the Somalis, raising the specter of jihad and links with al-Qaeda. In the summer of 2009 a Republican congressman introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives giving immunity to any American merchant sailor who wounded or killed a pirate in response to an attack.

Mention of jihad and links with al-Qaeda.  Uh-oh.  I don't really want to know what this author thinks about jihad.  It's not likely to be balanced or informed or realistic, and I'm only reading this book for historical information, and to figure out the economic system in that thing I'm writing.  Carrying on.

There is another parallel between the Barbary Coast corsairs of the seventeenth century and their twenty-first-century comrades in Somalia. In the West (although not in their own homelands) neither group has been able to boast the glamour of the buccaneers of the Caribbean—the Henry Morgans and the Captain Kidds, the swashbuckling Errol Flynns of old romance. Those pirates have been held up by historians as heroic rebels without a cause, cheerful anarchists or ardent democrats, proto-Marxists or proto-capitalists, promoters of gay rights and racial equality, praiseworthy dissidents rather than villains.

The pirates of Africa, past and present, have not. The white West regards them as the irreconcilable Other—not rebels against authority but plain criminals, not brave Robin Hoods (that would make us the Sheriff of Nottingham), but cowardly thieves. When the old pirates of Barbary described themselves as mujahideen on a sea-jihad against encroaching Christendom, Christendom portrayed them as demons bent on world domination; when modern-day Somali pirate chiefs say that the real sea-bandits are those who steal their fish stocks and pollute their coastal waters, we patronize them and then send a gunboat. An underlying racism and a more overt anti-Islamism make it hard to imagine Captain Blood or Jack Sparrow as North African Muslims, spilling over into contemporary popular culture. It would be difficult to imagine a modern-day pirate movie about a plucky little band of Somalis taking on the combined might of the world’s navies. We’re much more likely to see another Black Hawk Down, with the military battling against underwhelming odds in the Gulf of Aden.

The author makes accurate comments about racism and othering.  I was not expecting that at all.

I'm translating a book by an Orientalist about Islamic law, and I do a lot of related and unrelated reading.  I encounter so much blatant racism and bigotry passed off as enlightenment in academic writing  that I've come to expect it.  It's even worse when I encounter it in person from people I otherwise respect and care about. This happens so frequently that it seems like the default, I see it everywhere and so I expect it, and sometimes that's not fair to other people, sometimes when I least expect it I'm surprised by how decent they are.

Sometimes people who've never been dehumanised or marginalised do understand what it is and how it happens and that it's wrong.  That restores a little bit of my faith in humanity.


  1. You should totally read "Princes of Jinz". It is by a British woman but looks on Islam a little kinder, as she grew up in Zanzibar and her father worked there and grandfather when it was still under the so-called Imamate.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, I will definitely look that up :)

  3. Asalaamu alaykum Maymunah,
    Firstly: love your blog. Period.
    Secondly: I've also encountered blatant Muslim bigotry in the writings of good friend of mine's journalism/work. I always point it out to them, but it's a strange feeling when someone you love clashes with your heartfelt belief system.

    Interesting research.

  4. Wa alaikom salaam wa rahmatullah, welcome Albie :)

    Ah, it's hard when people you otherwise like and respect turn out to hate a fundamental part of your world and identity. Especially when they're friends. Do you think pointing out the problems with their work to your friend has helped them to confront their bigotry?

  5. Well, I sure hope so. I haven't noticed anything else since I brought it up, but she's moved on to different research. I honestly think that being in the West, you are prey to a system that fronts as having no bias, so it can be hard to realize that you're part of a huge problem. Subhan'Allah, how people are still guided to Islam in this environment is amazing. :)