Islamists Still Perpetuating Slavery Today

An anti-slavery demonstration in Mauritania. (Photo: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is #MyFreedomDay to raise awareness of slavery and the fight against it. Today Islamic extremists are still perpetuating slavery and justifying it with reference to Islamic history and texts.

Islam came to exist at a time when slavery was widespread and various empires and states in Islamic history practiced slavery. Based on this history and theology, the Islamic State terrorist group reintroduced slavery into the modern world, selling captured women and girls in slave markets for less than the price of a packet of cigarettes.

But ISIS is not the only group of extremists to justify slavery.

Apologists for Islamism, like Georgetown professor of Islamic studies Dr. Jonathan Brown provide cover for slavery. In a speech on slavery in Islamic thought, Brown said, “It’s not immoral for one human to own another human.”

He added, “the Prophet of God [Mohammed] had slaves … There’s no denying that. Was he—are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God? No you’re not.” 

As a result of the legacy of slavery, there is a great deal of anti-black racism in the contemporary Arab world.

Slavery only ended comparatively recently in the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia, it was abolished in 1962. Yet despite the formal abolition of slavery in the kingdom, the attitudes of superiority persist and are used to justify appalling treatment of overseas guest workers from countries such as the Philippines.

In Yemen, most slaves were freed in the 1960s, but researchers confirmed cases of slavery as recently as 2010. Al-Jazeera covered slavery in Yemen in a documentary feature exposing the brutal realities of the continued practice.

Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, which it did only in 1981. Slavery, however, still exists in Mauritania, were an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population still live in slavery. In 2007 the government passed a law saying that slave owners would be prosecuted. But in 2014, the Global Slavery Index estimated there are 140,000 slaves still in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million.

Those who continue to keep slaves in Mauritania do so with reference to traditionalist Islamic rulings on the topic which permit and regulate the practice of slavery within an Islamic context.

A campaign to free the slaves of Mauritania is being spearheaded by Biram Dah Abeid, himself from the darker skinned Haratin “slave caste.”

Abeid was thrown in prison for his activism, after he secured Mauritania’s first ever conviction for owning slaves.

Despite protestations to the contrary and legislation on the books opposing slavery, the practice is alive and well in many Arab countries today, justified with reference to traditionalist understandings of Islam.

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.