I was prompted to write this after a recent Facebook discussion, which I weighed in on, when the term “abeed” (slaves) was used in a thread, in reference to a news story about an African American woman, who flashed an Arab American businessman in Detroit, during a verbal dispute. What was disturbing about the initial thread, before further discussion, was not simply the racist comments that were used about the unruly woman, but that some showed a profound lack of empathy when I mentioned that the term “abeed” is a hurtful word.
Calling a black person a “abed” (abeed in plural) is offensive. The term has been used for so long in certain segments of the Arab World that many people have become desensitized to its meaning. I know that all people do not use the term with overtly malicious intent; however, the word is disturbing, nonetheless.
“Abed” is a term that, at one time, had a general meaning of slave, then became a specific term, referring to blacks, who were viewed as subservient. For instance, “mamluk,” another term that is used for an enslaved person, came to specifically refer to a non-black slave, such as a Turk. Hence, “abeed” became nomenclature, which strictly referred to people with darker skin, as it is continued to be used today.
It is disingenuous to say that it is a good word, because excellent worshippers of God are “abeed.” When people use that term, it is not because they are saying that black people are the best worshippers, nor do they call lighter skin persons, or their own pious family members, “abeed.” The term has ugly roots and is derogatory; therefore, its usage should cease, instead of explaining it off to the offended and telling them not to be so sensitive, because it’s a compliment.
What was positive about the Facebook discussion though was that many young Arab Americans pushed back against those who used the term, pointing out that it should not be dismissed as non-offensive. I know Arab American activists throughout the country that promote solidarity between African Americans and Arab Americans. Moreover, some of them have directly challenged the usage of the term “abeed.” Likewise, I know of numerous African American leaders, who have spoken out against anti-Arab bigotry among other black people and confronted bigots, like Terry Jones.
So, the next time you hear someone using the terms “abed,” or “abeed,” politely recap the points made above. If we want people to be sensitive to us, we must be sensitive to others. Fellow humans are not "abeed."
— Dawud Walid is the Executive Director of CAIR-MI