An Interview With a Modern-Day Abolitionist

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Dec. 18 2013 1:06 PM

A Modern-Day Abolitionist on Fighting Slave Power

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Biram Dah Abeid.

Courtesy of Freedom House

While there are nearly 30 million people living in some form of slavery the world today, there is no country where it is as prevalent or as institutionalized as in Mauritania. While statistics on the number of people living in slavery in the country are hard to come by, numbers cited by the U.S. State Department put it at up to 20 percent of the population.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Slavery was formally abolished in 1981—Mauritania was the last country in the world to do so—and criminalized in 2007, but human rights groups say enforcement of the laws has been rare to nonexistent and full chattel slavery as well as slavelike working conditions persist in many parts of the country, sanctioned by legal codes from the Middle Ages. Here’s how the NGO Anti-Slavery International describes the institution:

Slavery has existed in Mauritania for hundreds of years and is deeply rooted within society across the country. The Haratine are the group most affected by slavery practices and are traditionally owned by Bidane, or white moors, the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent in Mauritania. Historically the white moors raided and enslaved people from the indigenous black population and today, all cases of slavery in Mauritania involve people whose ancestors were enslaved before them. 

Slavery status is an inherited status. This age-old distinction underpins the very nature of slavery in Mauritania whereby individuals are assigned to a 'slave caste' which is ascribed at birth. Those in slavery are devoid of all their fundamental human rights, are owned and controlled by their masters, and are treated like their property. They are forced to work for their masters throughout their lives and are never paid for their work. They do what their masters tell them to do or they are threatened and abused.
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Yesterday I had the chance to speak with anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid at the offices of Freedom House in Washington, D.C. Dah Abeid was a recipient of the 2013 United Nations Human Rights Prize, an award previously won by figures including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., for campaigning against slavery with his NGO, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement. The son of freed slaves himself, Dah Abeid has been arrested and tortured multiple times for his work. Last year he upped the ante by publicly burning Islamic legal texts justifying slavery, a crime punishable by death, provoking fatwas against him, another arrest, and a raid on his house.

We talked about the current state of slavery in the country and why he believes the international community should use the same tactics it used on apartheid South Africa to end it:    

Joshua Keating: What's the current legal situation regarding slavery in Mauritania and what changes are you pushing for?

Biram Dah Abeid: The legal framework in Mauritania is very fluid. This fluidity contributes to the maintaining of slavery. There are two types of laws in Mauritania. You have the "slave code," which legitimizes and codifies slavery, and which gives the law a sacred aspect. These are books that were written in the Muslim Middle Ages in the Maghreb area between the ninth and 16th century. These laws authorize the owning of black people. They decree that the black race is inferior. They allow for the selling of black people, the castration of black people, the rape of black women. These codes also state that women are legal minors for their whole lives and are not equal to men.

These books are currently being used to train the imams, the police forces, and the judges. These books are recognized by the Mauritanian Constitution as the only correct interpretation of the Quran. In the Constitution of Mauritania, they are the primary source of law. But it completely contradicts the letter and the spirit of the actual Quran, which is in its nature egalitarian. 

Whoever is accused of touching these books is an apostate. If you refuse the books, you are an apostate as well. And he who is an apostate should be punished with the death penalty. The only person that dared touch these books was me, on April 27, 2012. When I touched them, my whole neighborhood was surrounded by police cars. My house was bombarded. My whole neighborhood was bombarded. I was violently arrested. The government started an international diplomatic and media campaign against me, saying that I am an enemy of Islam and that I have to die.

Mauritania also has a modern law that it has codified, specifically a law against slavery. But these are not laws that are meant to be applied. The traditional law that decrees racial inequality and slavery and the inequality of women is considered superior and sacred. When there is a contradiction between the two, the traditional law trumps modern law each time. The judges are trained using these slave codes and the antiquated law. They're brought up within this framework and believe that it comes from God. Other laws, modern laws and international conventions are considered in Mauritania to be from people who are non-Muslims and nonbelievers.

The new laws were ratified by those who hold power in Mauritania in order to avoid being sidelined by other nations and to be able to obtain money from the international community. That's all. But we don't actually implement them in Mauritania. No person in Mauritania has ever been sanctioned by modern law on the issue of slavery or violence against women. No one has ever been punished for that even though these crimes are common. It's us who fight against slavery who are always punished. It's the anti-slavery activists who are put in jail. It is we who are arrested. It is we who are tortured.

JK: Can you tell me how you began your fight against slavery? What motivated you to speak out given all the risks involved?

BDA: There are multiple motivations. My heritage, first of all. I am a descendant of slaves. My father's life, just like the lives of many in our community, was poisoned by slavery. My father's mother was a slave her whole life. He was given his freedom when he was in the stomach of his mother. As he grew up he was free, but his mother and his brothers were all slaves.  But the liberty that he benefited from was very relative. When one is given his freedom, that means that all his kids and grandkids will be free, but they will never be naturally free. The stigma of slavery is stronger than the status of having liberty.

In our society, you have the man who is free at the top, the slave at the bottom, and the man who is freed between them. The proverbs of our masters say that the difference between a slave and one who is freed is the distance which separates the tail of the cow from the ground. In Mauritania, our cows have very long tails.

This is to show that being a freed person is very relative in Mauritania.

My dad, even though he was born and earned his freedom, he got married to a slave woman and had two kids. He wanted to bring his wife far away from them because he could only see her very late at night when her masters were sleeping. He wanted to have his wife with him, and he tried to bring her away from them. But his masters opposed him and brought him to court. The court ruled against my father, saying that his wife was a slave and belonged to her masters. They said, if [the family] wanted to sell her, he could buy his wife because she was just like their cow or their sheep. And he said, OK, in that case I'm going to take my kids. And the judge said that these kids don't have a father, they only have a “progenitor,” because slavery is transmitted through a mother's bloodline. So the children were the slaves of this master too. The judge applied the same law that was in the books that I destroyed.

Later, my dad found a free woman to marry, the daughter of one of his friends. That's my mother. Later, when I grew up, my dad always taught me about the dangers of slavery and told me that if he could do one thing to satisfy him after he died, it would be to fight against slavery.

But this isn't the only motivation. The other motivation is that as I was growing up I saw the misery and the suffering causes in the society in which I live. I saw very respected people who never work, their sons never work, their father never worked, but there are tons of people working for them. They eat off the labor of others. And those who work for them don't make any money and live very poorly. This is what I saw around me.  

The third is my moral satisfaction. I cannot be a man who is morally balanced without banishing slavery from my society. I see it as my duty as a Muslim who believes in what is in the Quran, in all the divine messages, whether it be the message of Jesus Christ, the message of Moses, the message of Abraham, the message of Mohammed, peace be upon him. I cannot believe in these messages without fighting against this insanity.

So it's a personal thing from my father, a response to what I see around me, a commitment to international law, and a commitment to my beliefs. These are the things that motivate me.

JK: There are obviously many countries, including the United States, that have a history of slavery. And it's present to different degrees in countries around the world. But why do you think it is still so prevalent and institutionalized only in Mauritania?

BDA: Because Mauritania is the only one among all the Muslim countries, where sharia law means slave law, where sharia means the owning of the black man. Sharia in other Muslim countries is a sharia that is anti-slavery and respects human rights.

Slavery is a need for the dominant group in Mauritania. The Arabo-Berber minority dominates the country the same way the Afrikaners dominated South Africa during apartheid. They have founded their way of life on slavery. Men and women of this community do not work with their hands and define themselves as the whites, as opposed to the blacks. Whenever you go their houses, you see a domestic person, who is usually a slave or someone who is treated in a way that is analogous to how you would treat a slave.

These are the people who direct the state, who direct the army, who direct the police, who direct the courts. They want to protect their way of life. They don't want to eradicate slavery, they want to protect it. For the moment, they're doing a very good job of it because the international community won't put sanctions on them like they did on South Africa during apartheid. They have implanted apartheid in West Africa.

JK: So you'd like to see sanctions applied to Mauritania like those that were placed on South Africa in the 1980s?

BDA: Yes, you shouldn't treat two apartheids differently, they should be treated the same. And states should make their aid to Mauritania conditional on action taken to eradicate slavery. Western countries, the EU, the AU, should say that the Haratin, the community of former slaves, and should be let go to be free. Right now Mauritania is crushing the Haratin who revolted against slavery. It's repressing the civil rights movement. The Haratin have revolted in all the cities in Mauritania against slavery. The state has opposed them and put them down with violence, even though our movement is peaceful and based on nonviolence. All our organizations are banned and our demonstrations are banned. All the leaders of our movement are currently accused of crimes that carry the death penalty.

This is to intimidate us from demanding to work a job that has a salary, from women demanding control over their bodies. Women are the property of their masters under the slave code and subject to the desires of the master. The Haratin are maintained in a state of slavery by force without rest, without salary, without medical assistance. They don't have papers to identify themselves. All of this should motivate the international community to stop giving military and economic aid to Mauritania. This could loosen this racist regime's iron grip around its victims.

JK: Do you see signs that opinions about slavery are changing in Mauritania?

BDA: The iron fist is getting stronger, because there are two contradicting changes that unfortunately are going to bring Mauritania toward a bloody confrontation. The change in the minds of people that IRA has managed to create, these changes which are taking place within the Haratin and former slaves, have created a strong determination for freedom, and a strong movement for freedom.

But the pockets of pro-slavery extremism are now at the very highest levels of government. Our current president, [Mohamed Ould Abdel] Aziz, is part of the extreme right in terms of slavery and he's not ready for dialogue. He says those who side against slavery are enemies of Islam, are agents and allies of the Jews, are the allies of foreigners, are the enemies of Mauritania. In Mauritania these are things that can be punished by death.

So in the face of the Haratin who are trying to shake things up, Gen. Abdel Aziz has organized the extremists in the Moor community to do the most violent repression you can think of. So certainly he's going to bring us to a bloody confrontation.

JK: Are you worried about your own or your family's safety after speaking out internationally about what's happening in Mauritania?

BDA: [Laughs] I have been at risk for so long. The political, religious, and tribal leaders, they've already had demonstrations asking for me to get the death penalty. The chief of state has said publicly that he's going to give me the death penalty. The council of ministers of Mauritania got together especially to talk about my case and put out a communiqué saying I would be killed.

They're just trying to figure out a way to do it without shocking the international community or provoking a huge revolution among the Haratin. So as much as I'm at risk, the power behind slavery is also at risk. The majority of soldiers are Haratin. The majority of workers are Haratin. The majority of peasants are Haratin. They are human beings and capable of being on the side of reason. But they're also capable of revolting.

I am a nonviolent activist, but if the government decides to take my life with violence, it will create more violence. If I lose my life fighting slavery, that's something I accept, but I will be sad that people will die.

JK: But do you think they will allow you back into the country after this trip?

BDA: Well whatever happens, I'm getting on a plane on the 27th.

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