On Wednesday, December 8, 1999, the Middle East Forum hosted a conference in New York on the topic of slavery in the Middle East. The panel included three experts on the issue:
Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group;
Moctar Teyeb, who was born into slavery in Mauritania and escaped at age 18; and
Samuel Cotton, author of "Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery" (Harlem River Press, 1998) and executive director of the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan.
According to conservative estimates, twenty-seven million people today are living in human bondage around the globe. By definition, these slaves are made to work for little or no money by means of force or the threat of force. In the worst case, that of chattel-slavery, people are the owned property of others and are bred and passed on through their masters.
In Mauritania and Sudan, one finds, respectively, the most ignored and the worst cases of slavery. In Mauritania, the centuries-old institution of slavery has never ended. Slave raids ceased long ago; for generations, those who are slaves constitute a caste that continues from one generation to another. Precisely because it is so much a part of the scenery, slavery in Mauritania attracts little attention; it appears to be part of the eternal order of things. But it should not be; and the fact that one generation after another is born into servitude is unacceptable.
The sixteen-year long war in Sudan is a jihad (sacred war) waged by northerners against the Muslims, Christians, and Animists in the south. It is primarily prosecuted by the National Islamic Front, the fundamentalist Muslim party that took power ten years ago (but which has been pushed aside in recent weeks). The jihad includes such atrocities as militias armed by the government of Khartoum engaging in pogrom-like raids on villages. The village men are shot, women and children are taken captive, then enslaved, branded, bred, and forcibly converted to Islam. Women chosen as concubines are genitally mutilated. The war in Sudan has claimed over two million lives-more than the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and Chechnya combined. Despite this calamity, the south Sudanese have been abandoned by the West.
Eight centuries ago, Arab Berber tribes from the north raided the villages of my ancestors, killing the men, and taking the women and children captive. We became "haratine," black Muslim slaves, who had to serve our white Arab masters, the "Bedyanes." These raids inaugurated a system of slavery in the twelfth century that continues uninterrupted today.
As their masters' property, slaves exist to oblige their masters' every need. In Mauritania, where manual labor is a shameful act, slaves cook, clean, herd cattle, and cultivate land. Often, slaves are given as a gift or loan; they are not allowed to marry.
Both masters and slaves in Mauritania are Muslim. The haratines are faithful Muslims and are raised to believe that serving their masters is their religious duty, due to their "impure" black skin. The Bedyanes have taught the haratines to believe that their only hope for redemption in the hereafter is through obedience, and that "the road to heaven is under the masters' foot". They deny them the right to study the Qur'an because they are too impure for such a holy book.
When Bedyanes want to repent, they often "donate" one of their slaves as charity to poor Bedyanes. This explains the otherwise bizarre sight of blind beggars being led around by their black slaves in the capital Nouakchott and other Mauritanian cities.
Since the Mauritanian market for slaves is saturated (everyone has enough slaves already), new ways to trade slaves have been established. In the early 1980s, several sheikhs from Persian Gulf countries imported slave children from Mauritania. Within Mauritania, some masters hire out their slaves to companies in return for their salaries. Others rent slaves to other masters in big cities. Perhaps most astonishingly, one can even find slaves in the embassies of Mauritania abroad.
Although the suffering of the haratines has lasted for many centuries, our Muslim brethren have yet to condemn the practice of slavery in Mauritania. Haratines are also dismayed at the inaction of most Western human rights groups. With the notable exception of the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, most groups have ignored the plight of one million Mauritanian slaves. Some do not know, others do not care. But the silence has to be broken.
As a black American, I was at first surprised to find that although African governments are aware of the existence of slavery, they display no concern about the issue. Senegal, for instance, maintains good relations with Mauritania-despite the latter's enslavement of individuals from ethnic groups living in Senegal. Eventually I realized that, in contrast to African-Americans, African blacks do not see their common skin color as the basis for solidarity. African Americans became a group as a result of the oppression they experienced in the United States, leading them to identify as a group and with other blacks.
This would lead you to assume that the experience of black Africans would resonate with that of African Americans. Sadly, that is not the case. In fact, the anti-slavery movement in the United States, is predominantly white. The silence of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and other African American organizations and groupings on an issue that is central to the African American experience is a phenomenon that has to be examined. I have several levels of explanation.
First, there is no indication of a connection, and even respect, between African Americans and Africans. An initial brotherhood between the groups turns out to be based on a nostalgic fantasy by the Americans about Africa and it dissolves quickly.
Secondly, many African Americans look to Islam for an alternative to their racist experience under Christianity. This set of attitudes prevents them from focusing on developments in Africa, preferring to believe that if it's Islamic, it's fine. Black American converts to Islam look to Muslims for a social model. The phenomenon of Muslims sponsoring slavery in Mauritania and Sudan causes cognitive dissonance which they are unable to deal with. The time has come for African American Muslims to address the fact that their fellow Muslims not only keep slaves but are making new ones.
What should be done to end slavery?
Charles Jacobs: In Sudan, slavery will be ended only when the war ends. This means either a partition of the country, in which the south has an independent or autonomous existence; or with the north dominating the south, in which case slavery might persist.
Moctar Teyeb: In the case of Mauritania, where slavery is widespread and systematic, it is important to pressure the Mauritanian government by halting international aid to Nouakchott. That aid helps to maintain the slavery system.
Samuel Cotton: It is crucial that the public be informed in a comprehensive manner. Once the public absorbs the information, it can ignite moral indignation to address the issue.
Summary account by Assaf Moghadam