Â “It is our religion and custom”-
Â “Paradise is under your master’s foot.”
A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania.
Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.
And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.
That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.
His prospects of winning power are growing by the day – and he is being hailed as Mauritania’s brightest star by his supporters.
“He is the Obama of Mauritania,” said Boubacar Messaoud, an architect and veteran anti-slavery campaigner in the northwest African desert state. “He is going to bring change, and he represents social justice and equality.”
Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.
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Change will come too late to heal Mrs Sayed’s ruined life. But she knows that victory for Mr Boulkheir could transform the future for the daughter and grandchildren whom she had to leave behind in captivity when she finally summoned the courage to escape.
A black African of Mauritania’s Haratine caste, she was born into slavery about 40 years ago – she is illiterate and has only a hazy idea of time – and grew up as the property of an Arabic-speaking Berber family, in an oasis town deep in the desert.
While her master’s children went to school, she was cooking, cleaning and washing from dawn to dusk. She slept on the floor, and suffered beatings.
“Sometimes I was too tired by the end of the day to eat my food,” Mrs Sayed said at her new home in the capital, Nouakchott, where she now works as a paid housekeeper.
Aged about 10, she was separated from her mother by being given to a cousin of the master as a wedding gift. She remembers crying uncontrollably when they moved to a different town, where she was forbidden from leaving the master’s house.
Another 20 years later she was separated from her own daughter, Mulkheir, when the girl was given away as a teenager â€“ a common trauma for slave families.
Mrs Sayed has never seen her three young grandchildren or met her daughter’s husband. In fact she is not sure whether her daughter even has a husband, or whether Mulkheir’s children were fathered by her master.
It is the kind of life that has been endured for centuries by Mauritania’s slaves, since the first marauding Berber raiders rode out of the desert from the north in the 3rd century to carry off African villagers.
The former slave who would be president believes he can finally bring such suffering to an end.
“All that is needed to free the slaves is willpower,” Mr Boulkheir toldÂ The Sunday Telegraph at his modest home in the capital.
A quietly spoken man with a commanding presence, he has a clean reputation in an Islamic nation which has suffered years of corrupt rulers.
The acting president and head of the senate, Ba Mamadou Mbare, is not contesting the election. Of his nine rival candidates, the man Mr Boulkheir has to beat is the self-appointed president of the Higher State Council, General Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz, who led a military coup last year and is the most powerful man in the country. He is the Arabic-speaking former head of security for Ould Taya – the deposed dictator who was driven out by an earlier coup in 2005 and now lives in exile.
Gen Abdelaziz – who has removed his uniform to contest the election in line with the constitution – and his political opponents including Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the president he deposed last year, agreed to the polls in a deal brokered by Senegal.
The junta and its opponents had come under intense pressure from the international community to re-establish a democratic government, with the United Nations, European Union and African Union co-sponsoring the mediation.
Gen Abdelaziz’s enemies stop short of claiming that he owns slaves â€“ he was in fact born in poverty and inherited nothing. But they insist that there are slave-owning masters among the ranks of his wealthy supporters.
The two candidates despise each other. Their electoral battle, a novelty in a ramshackle capital which is more used to coups, has enthused its residents, as much as anyone can be enthused in temperatures of 43 degrees centigrade.
Its streets, where sand drifts across the tarmac, are plastered with posters, and nomadic-style tents have been erected in every suburb. Blaring loudspeakers praise the rival candidates at such volume that passing camels and donkeys pulling carts are sent into a panic. With six days to go, diplomats consider the race too close to call.
The votes of slaves who have been registered by their masters may make a critical difference. But campaigners fear that in the great swathes of the country’s dusty hinterland where most of the slaves are kept, thousands will be compelled to cast their votes for Gen Abdelaziz.
Mr Boulkheir’s camp hopes it can pull ahead by energising the freed Haratine â€“ the slave caste which has grown in size and clout in recent years, especially in the cities, as slaves have gradually been freed or run away. Once free, they can join the workforce. Fishing, desert agriculture and iron and gold mining and are the main sources of income for Mauritanians, who on average earn little more than $2 a day, although that could rise if offshore oil exploration ever proves fruitful.
Mr Boulkheir also enjoys the kudos of having being jailed three times by Mauritania’s former military dictatorship for advocating democracy when that looked impossible in the 1990s.
Arabic-speakers as well as black Africans back his bid for power, attracted by his promise of building democracy after years of economic stagnation under military misrule and a chaotic series of coups. He is regarded as the candidate with the best chance of ending conflict between the black majority and the Berber ruling elite. Slave-holding has been abolished three times, first by the country’s former French overlords and then twice by different rulers of the independent state, most recently in 2007. But the law has never been enforced and no slave owner has ever been prosecuted.
“Many slaves have been freed in Mauritania now, and if I am elected I will speed up the process,” Mr Boulkheir said. “Slave owners will be punished, for the first time in our history. Justice will be implemented.
“I will do everything in my power to end this curse of slavery.”
In this, he has a deeply personal motivation. Soon after he was born his mother was beaten almost to death by the master from whom his parents had run away. They only managed to escape to freedom because of help from the French authorities.
Their son overcame the handicap of his birth to find a job as a civil servant and rise to a senior rank.
He knows that ending slavery will not prove easy, especially in the vastness of the Sahara where pastoralists and nomads endure a harsh existence which has barely been touched by the modern world.
Not all slaves suffer abuse. If they are lucky, masters feed and care for them as if they are family members, albeit inferior ones, and they will eat and pray with their slaves.
In bondage, the Haratine work as labourers: herding animals; working in date groves; or doing the household chores while the master’s family laze around.
Centuries of indoctrination have persuaded the Sahara’s captives that slavery is religiously ordained – slaves are taught that if they run away they will be barred from heaven. As a local saying puts it: “Paradise is under your master’s foot.” In some remote places a runaway will still be hunted down by nomad masters.
If they are brave enough, boys do often escape when they reach their late teens, but for women and children it is much harder. They know that with no skills or education a life of hunger or prostitution is the realistic alternative to captivity, and many escaped slaves return to their masters to beg forgiveness.
In the oasis towns of the desert masters are still powerful, but after 20 years of international pressure – and encouraged by such Western organisations as Anti-Slavery International, which help local campaigners to challenge the entrenched culture – few are prepared to discuss slavery openly.
A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”
Condemning European/American Slavery Sparing Islam, the Bigger Culprit
Thursday, 23 July 2009 Â Islam Watch
PresidentÂ Obama, visiting a slave-fort in Ghana,Â condemned slavery, pointing to a chruch that stood next to theÂ slave-dungeons, to obviate the popular paradigm as to how European Christians, with sanctions from the church, engaged in black slavery, probably the only slavery that existed in history and is worth condemning. But Islamâ€”whose role in slavery is much bigger, crueler, and more tragicâ€”remains thoroughly untouched; as if Islam and its followers were/are untouched by the vice of slavery.
It’s a popular wisdom that the only slavery existed in history is the black slavery, whereby European traders captured and transported black Africans to the New World (Americas, West Indies).
Ask a Muslim; he/she will tell you so. An America-born young Muslim wrote to me: “Do you know how the American slave-hunters went to Africa, seized the black people and brought them to America as slaves? America’s economic power owes a great deal to the labor of those slaves.”
Nation of Islam’s Louis FarrakhanÂ termsÂ the trans-Atlantic slave-trade “worst and most cruel slavery” in history, adding that some white Americans do not know that “they are in the privileged position… based on what happened to us (Blacks)” in the past.
An overwhelming majority of Muslims believe that Islamic history is devoid of the abhorrent practice of slavery. Rocky Davis (aka Shahid Malik), an Australian Aboriginal convert to Islam, told theÂ ABC RadioÂ that “Christianity were the founders of slavery. Not Islam.”
Indeed, from my own experience of living as a Muslim for 35 years, this is one of the major reasons of why anti-West hatred is so strong amongst Muslims.
When Muslims in India talk about the practice of slavery in the subcontinent, they talk about the harrowing tales of how the Portuguese transported slaves from coastal areas of Goa, Kerala and Bengal in terrible conditions, and nothing else.
However, when I investigated, I was shocked to discover that Muslimsâ€”armed with divine and prophetic sanctionsâ€”practised slavery of a much greater proportion and tragedy, which I have discussed in my recent book,Â Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion Imperialism and Slavery.
It is fortunate that President Obama,Â visitingÂ a former slave-trading fort in Ghana on July 11, condemn this dark chapter in human history rightly as a “great evil”, adding “As African-Americans, there is a special sense that… this place was a place of profound sadness…”
Obama also pointed to a church, standing next to slave-dungeons, to obviate the paradigm as to how European Christians, with sanctions from the church, engaged in black slavery.
This popular paradigm excludes three major facts about slavery:
Black slavery was not the only slavery in history. The Arabs, Turks, Indians and even millions of Europeans were also reduced to slavery during the same period and before, with added dimensions of sex-slavery and castration. And the perpetrators were Muslims, not Europeans.
Black slaves were not shipped to the New World alone; a greater number were sent to the Islamic world.
Even in trans-Atlantic slave-trade, Muslims were complicit and played the cruelest role.
Islamic history informs us that Prophet Muhammad himself, armed with affirmed and reaffirmed divine sanctions (QuranÂ 16:76, 30:28, 16:71, 70:29â€“30, 23:5â€“6, 33:50 etc.), initiated Islamic slavery by enslaving the women and children of a number of Arabian tribes (Quraiza, Khaybar, Mustaliq and Hawazin etc.). Later, as Islamic power grew in leaps and bounds, slavery witnessed a tremendous burst on the world stage. Everywhere Muslims won victory, the women and children of the vanquished were enslaved in massive numbers: General Musa enslaved 300,000 in his conquest of North Africa in 698 and returned from his conquest of Spain in 715 with the Caliph’s one-fifth share of the booty that included 30,000 white virgins from the Visigothic nobility alone, while Sultan Mahmud returned from his invasion of India in 1001â€“02 CE with 500,000 enslaved women and children. This is only a tip of the iceberg.
No small victims of Islamic slavery were Europeans themselves, who started falling victims to Islamic assaults in the Mediterranean islands within two decades after Muhammad’s death. And it continued well into the 19th century: the Ottomans, even in their decisive defeat and retreat from the Gates of Vienna in 1683, returned with 80,000 white captives, while Barbary pirates enslaved up to 1.5 million Europeans between the 1530s and 1820s, from European merchant-ships off the North African coast, plus from slave-raiding expeditions to costal villages and islands of Europe.
Even American merchant-ships and their crew suffered horrible Barbary depredations and enslavements. Prior to independence, Britain negotiated the release of captured American ship-crews whenever possible paying heavy ransom. After 1776, America signed treaties with Barbary States for securing safety of her ships by paying hefty tribute. To placate Muslims in Cairo speech, President Obama flaunted this humiliating treaty on America’s part as a respectful past relationship between Islam and America. As demand for higher ransom and depredations of U.S. ships continued, America had to engage in a difficult war to stop horrible enslavement of Americans in North Africa. Putting an end to continued enslavement of Europeans was a major reason behind France’s invasion of Morocco in 1830.
It’s noteworthy that the Europeans, Obama’s exclusive target of condemnation for slavery, were subjected to Islamic enslavement in the cruelest form for some eight centuries, before they themselves embarked on the practiceâ€”the widely condemned trans-Atlantic slave-trade.
Moreover, even in the European slave-trade in Africa, it was Muslimsâ€”the well-established masters of slave-hunting, -breeding and -trading for many centuriesâ€”who supplied over 80% of the slaves to European traders, the latter mainly purchased and transported them. The European slave-trade only offered a stimulus and played a lucrative partner for Muslims to a long-established Islamic vocation in Africa.
What is accurate about Obama’s statement about slavery in Ghana is that European slavery was “where the journey of much of African-American experience began”. The cruel aspect aside, it left a positive end of some kind: the Black Diaspora in the new world, definitely more fortunate today than their left-behind brethren.
Yet, this is only half the truth. There was another African slave-journeyâ€”lasting longer and larger in magnitudeâ€”that began with the Arab Muslim invasion of Africa in the 7-8th century. And it has left behind no residue whatsoever, an extermination of human species of huge magnitudeâ€”thanks to universal castration of black male-slaves destined for Islamic markets.
The inhumanity of Islamic castration of immense number of African men wasn’t the robbing of their most natural identity and endowment, i.e. their manhood, alone, but mortality in castration was about 75 percent. Overall mortality-rate of black slaves headed to the Islamic world, from procurement to reaching the destination, was as high as 90%, but their mortality in transportation by Europeans to the New World was about 10 percent.
Obama’s condemnation of European-Christian slavery, a horror chapter in history, is laudable, but his exclusion of Islam, the crueler partner in the same crime, is not. It does gross injustice to those unfortunate souls that suffered from this tragic Islamic scourge. And those souls also include millions of Christian Europeans, his sole target of condemnation.
European slavery has been thoroughly condemned by all and sundryâ€”Europeans or non-Europeans, Christians or Muslims, scholars or laymen. And despite, Europe’s singular and forceful role in its abolition and from where slavery has been effectively abolished, anti-slavery campaigners have long called today’s Europeans to assume greater responsibility for past slavery and take concrete actions, such as payment of reparations, to combat slavery’s destructive legacy. But Islamâ€”whose role in slavery is much bigger, crueler, and more tragicâ€”remains thoroughly untouched; as if Islam and its followers were/are untouched by the vice of slavery.
In fact, some Islamic countries (Mauritania, Saudi Arabia & Sudan) have continued practising slavery to this days, while Sudan has intensified it in recent decades, thanks to lack of criticism of Muslim engagement in slavery, whether historical or present. Some 600,000 souls in Mauritania remainÂ shackled in continued slaveryÂ with no hope for liberation in sight, while tens of thousands of Christians, Animists and even Muslims have been kidnapped and reduced to slavery in Sudan since Islamists came to power in 1985 (Khan, Islamic Jihad, p. 347â€“49).