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Friday, January 24, 2014

Slavery, Islam and the Arab world-view

We all accept that slavery is bad but ignore the reality, which is that without Islam, slavery would never have become as pervasive as it was, or is, today.  We accept the Atlantic (Western) slave trade as if it was possible to exclude the crucial contribution to that trade made by the Arab slave traders. But without the Arab slave trade, without their physical labor and the financial benefit they derived from it, little of the western trade would have been possible. It was possible because that trade was at least eight centuries older than the Atlantic slave trade. The Muslim Prophet Mohamed did not refute the legitimacy of the slave trade. In fact the taking of slaves was encouraged as war ‘booty’. He saw it as a normal economic activity that benefited the Arab people. Because the Arab people were ‘gifted’ the Koran by Mohammed, they were the only and true ‘Chosen people’ and their racial superiority became part of the legacy of their history and of their successful conquest across three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe). Contempt for the ‘Other’ as personified in the institution of slavery followed the Muslim immigrant everywhere.

This ethnic bigotry was part fashion (fair skinned slaves being favored as concubines), part history (successful conquest equates with self-justification for the means employed and the profits enjoyed) and finally, part Koranic incitement (the Islamic faithful were exercising their right to benefit from the willful attitude of non-Muslims in not converting to the true faith).  The ease with which black slaves were seized made for the reinforcement of this prejudice which often saw the captive placed on a level little higher than beasts.   Europeans often fared little better. 

The racial aspect of the Arab trade was an inevitable reaction to Western engagement with the Arab world in the 18th and 19th Centuries – which was on Christian terms, not Muslim. But European nationalism and the intellectual expression of racial theories in the 19th Century soon found resonance in an Islamic world fed a narrative of millennia old, blood drenched glory against the infidel.  After all, if the Arabs were gifted Gods favor, then infidel encroachment must have a purpose. Islamic faith was (and is) inseparable from imperial endeavor so this violation of Muslim-Arab suzerainty could (and still is) only possible to explain in theological terms, as testing the resolution of the faithful.

Ronald Segal wrote in ‘Islam’s Black Slaves’ that slavery in Islam was mainly a service industry. “Slavery itself was primarily a form of consumption rather than a factor of production.”  There existed in Arab lands a substantial peasant class so early attempts at using slave-labor for production ended very badly.  Uprisings and massacres (the Zanj Revolt for example) were of unbelievable scope (according to the 10th Century historian al-Masudi 300,000 people died in Basra alone). So instead, usually, slaves were utilized as concubines, servants and soldiers.  In fact, while the ratio of male to female slaves in the Atlantic slave trade was 2:1 in favor of men (as an indicator of slave use as a unit of production), in the Muslim world the ratio was reversed (2:1 in favor of women as an indicator of slave use as a unit of service).

While the manumission (freeing) of slaves was certainly encouraged, in opposition to this, Slavery was heavily regulated by Sharia law.  In distinct contradiction to the Atlantic slave trade, slaves and former slaves could attain great status in the Muslim world, but they experienced a terrible mortality rate. And the soldier slave could be killed at will.  This kept the slave trade active well into the twentieth century and it continues to this day because the Islamic faithful do not view any part of the Koran as time specific.

In the Muslim world there is no precedent for the legal annulment of a theological mandate. In this Muslim world, the institution of Slavery is an economic resource that is mandated by God; therefore, it cannot be theologically abrogated. To the purist, the trade is strictly and humanely administered, the safeguards laid down as holy writ. But if the sanction against abuse exists, it has been violated so often, and so egregiously, we can only conclude that prejudice and ideas of superior racial purpose make the institution of slavery an ideal means for demonstrating power. And to the fundamentalist, what took place in the Seventh Century is as relevant today as it was fourteen centuries ago. To paraphrase Thomas Mann: Compassion, veils her face.

Today, Slavery remains as it has always been, a blemish smeared across the human stage. Two short examples will suffice:

Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962 but it needed further legislation in 1990 to reinforce the original law. In 2007 Slavery was abolished for the fifth time in the Islamic republic of Mauritania.

At a conference organized by UN Watch in February 2013 it was explained that “some 20 percent of Mauritanians, about 600,000 people, are still slaves. Mauritania uses Sharia to justify a racist system where Arabs exploit the country's black African population.” In fact the number of people enslaved is believed to be somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000. In another case: “Saudi Princess Meshael Alayban was accused of human trafficking in the U.S., this has caused a stir throughout the world” but how was this story uncovered? “A few weeks ago, the victim, identified as 'Jane Doe,' escaped Alayban’s home where she alleges she was forced to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week; her passport held by Alayban to prevent escape. Jane Doe then flagged down a bus, explained her situation to another passenger who helped her phone police. When the police went to investigate, they found four other women at the home claiming to be in the same situation.” 31st July 2013

I watched Steve McQueen’s movie, ‘12 years a Slave’. For me it was grueling, for the black woman next to me it was worse and from time to time she quietly sobbed. I understood why. I cannot sit though a movie about the Shoah. I would not have voluntarily chosen this one either, nevertheless, ‘12 years a slave’ stands as a reminder that the fruits of inaction are an assumption of indifference and through indifference, approval.

Today there are estimated to be thirty million human beings held as slaves around the world. They generate some thirty billion dollars worth of income to their slave owners.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Piracy, Slavery and Inhuman Rights

The Treaty of Tripoli was approved in 1796– this was to be a Treaty of peace and amity between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Tripoli (part of the Ottoman Empire). Its intent was to bring to an end three centuries of Muslim, government sanctioned piracy by the nations of the Barbary Coast of North Africa - what we today call the Maghreb i.e. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.  Before then, any ship passing through the Mediterranean and many of the settlements along both the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic coast was subject to constant harassment by Barbary pirates.  Thousands of ships were lost to piracy, entire stretches of European coast-lands were uninhabitable and this was wholly because of the constant raids carried out by Arab slavers.    Those attacks enriched the Ottoman Empire with European slaves and goods. Often, hostages were taken for the purpose of extracting enormous ransoms from their respective governments, communities and families.  If unable to pay the tribute that was demanded for their lives, hostages not already allocated to the lucrative business of slavery, were consigned to slave markets, often they died while awaiting their freedom. During this three century period at least one and a quarter million European slaves are believed to have been lost to the Ottoman Slave Trade and the general Muslim market in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Treaty of Tripoli was violated during two significant periods at the start of the nineteenth century and led to both the First and the Second Barbary Wars.

We have failed to learn from this period of history that unless governments are willing to accept whatever consequences follow on from acquiescence to threats, intimidation and violence the ultimate result of failing to act against a rogue nation is escalating demands.  Says Luis Fleischman in a report for the Center for Security Policy: “Weakness generates a morbid pleasure on the other side. It is always weakness that invites more violence because it makes it easier for the perpetrator to carry it out.” 

It is a lesson from history that we have failed to learn, to our cost, in the war against the pirates that plague the Horn of Africa (principally along the Coast off Somalia).

But perhaps the most controversial result that emerged from the Treaty of Tripoli is what is referred to in Article 11 of the treaty.  “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Muslims,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Muslim nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The usual interpretation is that this was no more than the reaffirmation of the principle of ‘Separation of Religion and State’ by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. But a single question in popular culture often expresses the theory that this single document and its single paragraph (Article 11) has a pivotal role in guiding the US Department of State in its relationship with the whole of the Muslim world and has continued to do so since its signing 216 years ago. 

This unwillingness to take sides in ethical disputes between Western nations and the Muslim world are more than reluctance to pass judgement according to our own values. They demonstrate weakness and intellectual cowardice. They send a message to those with whom we have the strongest of objections to their behavior that we will not act against them even when they abuse us in our own homes.  This does not show our cultural superiority or our legal excellence in managing our differences in our multicultural societies. Instead it shows that we don’t care and that does make us appear weak.

Ultimately, history is based on what we choose to do. Inaction sends an equally clear message.

And so, to return to what is referred to by many historians as the Muslim Slave Trade, and if we isolate it and instead refer to the more specific Arab Slave Trade, between the 7th and the 20th century this one particular economic enterprise (the Arab slave trade) stole mores souls than the Atlantic Slave Trade and it killed far more human beings. For every slave that made it to the markets, four or five people died. The current estimate is that this particular trade saw somewhere between eleven million and up to forty million people seized from their homes and taken into slavery.

“If Christianity was responsible for the Atlantic slave trade, it was also Christians who led the campaign to abolish the Slave trade and then slavery itself.  In Islam, slavery was never the moral, political and economic issue it was in the West, where it engendered a multitude of tracts and books in denunciation of the institution.” (Ronald Segal ‘Islam’s Black Slaves’)

And the institution of slavery informs, educates and reinforces the believer in their attitudes and behaviors towards the ‘other.’  Ridicule is a central component of literary incitement and it leads to genocide – in Hitler’s Germany it was ‘the Jew’ portrayed as ‘rat’ (bringer of plagues). In much of Islamic holy literature it is both Christian and Jew who are portrayed as monkey, ape, pig or dog.  As recently as January 2014 Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a televised speech in which he called Israel the "rabid dog" of the Middle East. The Koran and its affiliated literature are replete with contemptuous anthropomorphic references to the infidel.

In the West we discuss inequality as if it is White, Middle class and a product of Judeo-Christian civilization.  Perhaps the philosophical idea of equality and its absence is, in itself, indeed a product of that synthesis.  But so what?  It exists without our airing it so it is only when we discuss it that we consider our treatment of others in both the past and in the present time.  It is only thus that we are able to judge our culpability and pronounce judgement on our ethical failures. Then it is possible to appreciate a need for change.  This is something that is largely if not wholly absent from any local or national dialogue in the Muslim world. 

The question that we should be asking is: how, can we raise the bar on what may be discussed in society, without causing a major crisis in our relationship with the Muslim world?  And if we cannot avoid such a rupture, is it worth it?

I suspect that that last question would never have occurred to the Abolitionists in the USA, or to Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in England. And if it did occur to them they would have known in their hearts and their minds that such a question was never truly worthy of asking.

In my next blog I will ask why the question is even more relevant today than it was in the past.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The American Constitution and the Limits of Free Speech

If I refer to the American Constitution it is because it is the template for most modern democratic nations in the way they aspire to treat human rights – even if only in theory. That American Constitution was approved 236 years ago, on September 17, 1787. It was created following a war that witnessed up to five times as many people die from disease and starvation as died in battle. There were those that felt it was not possible to fight for liberty if human rights were ignored. However, the main driver for the constitution was the need to provide a framework for a federal form of government without which the thirteen original member states remained disconnected from each other.  One nation was not possible without its unifying provisions. And it provided for civil rights that would be consistent across the separate states.  But there are two further documents that make up America’s founding, guiding ethos and they are the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. I will discuss them here, later.

People were suspicious of central authority.  They were weary of the abuse of parliament as well as kings (in this case the British one). But all kings and their aristocratic partners existed as self-perpetuating oligarchies.

Kings and emperors aspired to the status of earthly divinity and thereby most who ruled, demanded (and received) absolute loyalty.  Secular society had not yet been created and even when not governed as theocratic nation states, religious leaders inevitably bestowed the mantle of divine appointment on those who aspired to legitimise their rule.  Divine right was a crucial imprimatur to be invoked if things did not always go the way one intended.  Bureaucratic instruments ensured the “right kind of people” provided support; the few always acted against the interests of the many.

And so to return to the constitution, at its creation it did not protect the rights of slaves, Native Americans or women and together, they remained a repressed majority.

The American Constitution, created a blueprint for a society based on organising the nation through an administration that was kept in check by a doctrine of the separation of powers. Its influential opponents included prominent Founding Fathers who argued that the Constitution failed to protect the basic rights of the people. It was John Adams who in 1788 used the phrase "Tyranny of the Majority" to describe “a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots” (Wikipedia) and it was in response to this kind of thinking that the Bill of Rights was enacted. And Alexis de Tocqueville brought the term into prominence internationally when he published ‘Democracy in America’ in 1835.

It was this ongoing agitation that created the conditions for future judicial activism.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are what we know as the US Bill of Rights and they became effective on December 15, 1791. 

The first amendment grants “Freedom of religion, speech, and the press; rights of assembly and petition.” 

It took a long time and very specific circumstances before inequality was tackled, even as imperfectly as it is today. 

The most controversial document of all was the Declaration of Independence.  It speaks of Natural Rights and in the Preamble it states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Again, it was all about timing or at least, those that believed in its universal application explained it as an unfinished endeavour, a standard for perfection and one to which the Declaration represented an ongoing ideal awaiting completion.  In that way, after the fact, it became central to both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights it preceded.

In the 18th and the 19th Centuries, issues of personal freedom and freedom of expression did not have to contend with mass communication, near limitless wealth and (most) weapons of mass destruction. While it is futile to debate whether the founding fathers would have been quite so idealistic had the conditions been different the basic principles remain relevant even if we are too often insufficiently fast enough to react to threats against the Society those ideals were codified to defend.

Issues of identity, lawful protest and freedom of expression have become no-go areas that we are frightened to tackle as if everything in history is a forward march. But it is not. A nation at war must be able to defend itself while preserving the rule of law. Democracies have to preserve human rights but are too often fighting a war against people and groups happy to use the instruments of democracy to undermine (erode) and destroy those same institutions.

The American Constitution and its ancillary documents represent a framework for society that has stood the test of time.  But they are also ideals that need to be protected from those whose intent it is to invalidate them. It is not just America that is at fault here. Ideals can be placed out of reach so that they do not protect the people they are intended to serve. They become idols that are worshipped for them-selves and they replace that aspect of human responsibility without which we all live in a worshipful state of ignorance.

The most delicate balance exists between protecting the rights of citizens and giving them the licence to destroy the society.

The right to decide what constitutes incitement can change with the times however incitement always creates a momentum for violence that only someone attempting to tear down the edifice of democracy sees virtue in possessing.  Our society seems to have lost the enthusiasm to judge others as readily as others judge us. Perhaps that is because when we are morally selective the only defence is indifference.

The challenge for society is to define the limits of free speech: What is permissible, and what permissible language is not. Passionate beliefs are no excuse for failing to exercise self-control.  And it is irrelevant that some people truly believe they are endowed with divine permission to slander or to kill. Like human sacrifice, there are some uncivilised aspects of human behaviour best left to the professionals to explain and the law to debar.