I was born in Australia’s most beautiful city—not Sydney, Townsville—but, like many Australians, I have lived for long periods in the UK. Between 1989 and 2004 I worked for the British Council in London, latterly as its senior press officer.
As well as pieces from my colleagues about what the British Council was doing, dozens of press releases would descend on me daily from other international bodies, along with updates on world events issued by wire services such as Reuters and Agence France Presse.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
I was therefore in a position to identify which among this multitude of stories the media went on to run with, and which they thought unworthy of public attention. The criteria that broadcasters and newspapers used to sort what was newsworthy from what was not always eluded me. It seemed that they regularly ignored or failed properly to foreground what was self-evidently startling or essential. They also appeared to highlight reports that were less shocking but also less important examples of the items they hid or downplayed. Long after I left the British Council, I would amuse myself by checking the internet or the newspapers I bought for the sort of “suppressed” stories that might more aptly have graced the front page.
On January 17, 2015, I stumbled on an article hidden deep in the weekend edition of Le Monde that I found so extraordinary that I cut it out. It was titled, “En Mauritanie, prison ferme pour trois militants anti-esclavagisme” (“In Mauritania, imprisonment for three anti-slavery activists”). Revealing that “Mauritanian justice” had just sentenced the activists to two years in jail for making “racist propaganda”, Charlotte Bozonnet, the author of the piece, said the punishment was:
a conviction that highlights the taboo subject of slavery, a practice officially outlawed since 1981, but still extremely widespread in Mauritanian society. The three accused are Biram Ould Abeid, Director of the Initiative for the Resurrection of the Abolitionist Movement, an anti-slavery NGO, Brahim Ould Bilal Ramdane, one of his deputies, and Djilby Sow, president of an association for civic and cultural rights. Arraigned before a tribunal in Rosso in the south of the country, they had been arrested in November 2014 … while they were leading a ground campaign to denounce the practice of slavery … “Biram” is a big name in the struggle against slavery in Mauritania, himself from a family of Haratines—the caste of slaves and the descendants of slaves.
Bozonnet reported that Biram had recently been a candidate in Mauritania’s presidential election. One might have expected him to do well, given that he came from the country’s African majority, from whom almost all its slaves are drawn. Meanwhile, the sitting President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, “in power since a coup d’etat in 2008”, according to Bozonnet, represented the lighter-skinned Arab minority that preyed on and enslaved the Africans, which could hardly have endeared him to the electorate. To nobody’s great surprise, however, it was discovered that Biram had come second, with 9 per cent of the vote. Borzonnet continued:
Above all symbolic, his candidacy had put centre stage the problem of slavery and more generally that of the supremacy of the Moors, the Arab-Berber minority that holds political and economic power over the Haratines and the other black ethnic groups. A sensitive and potentially explosive theme in Mauritania, where a young 28 year old, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, was condemned to death at the end of December 2014 for having criticised certain precepts enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad, which are at the root, according to him, of an “iniquitous social system”.
The reference is to some of the founder of Islam’s reflections about black people in the Hadith, the Muslim “gospels”. In Hadith 161, Book 87 in Volume 9 of the collection of Bukhari, for example, Muhammad compares black women to the plague and says that, if we dream of one, it means an epidemic is about to strike. In Hadith 256 of Book 89 of the same volume, Muslims are enjoined to obey anyone of rank, “even if he is a black slave with a head like a raisin”. Partly as a result of these “precepts”, the Arabic word Abd (“slave”) denotes an African or a black person to this day in the world of Islam.
Another frenzy was ignited, according to Bozonnet, when, before his conviction for “racist propaganda”—that is, censuring Arab slavers—Biram objected to some of the legal interpretations arising from the Koran, the Hadith and the Sira, the sacred biographies of Muhammad. Islam’s founder is not only alleged in these works to have endorsed the seizing, selling and holding of slaves; he is described, with warm approval, as a slave owner and slave trader himself. Bozonnet goes on:
Biram Ould Abeid has been arrested and convicted for his activism several times … In 2012, for having burned some of the books of interpretation of the Koran in order to denounce the religious justifications often provided for the practice of slavery. An act liable to the death penalty in an Islamic Republic ruled by the Sharia. Only the massive mobilisation of his supporters led at that point to his release.
Re-reading this passage recently, I was reminded of the 2004 campaign by Sadiq Khan, then an MP, now Mayor of London, to make the rulings of backroom sharia courts enforceable in British law. This demand was conceded by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2008 via an amendment to the 1996 Arbitration Act. Biram’s allegation that the Koran was at the root of modern slavery, meanwhile, cast an intriguing light on the demands, first by Khan on June 9, 2020, and then a day later by another leading British Muslim, the Business Minister, Nadim Zahawi, that all monuments to slave traders in the UK be cast down forthwith. Except, perhaps, the many that are vast and ugly mosques.
I pondered, too, the daring stand taken by Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, which put into context the less than heroic acts of Western iconoclasm that the death of George Floyd had just given rise to. Given “the massive mobilisation of his supporters” against racism and the legacy of slavery, I wondered why the patronising Western mobs were so indifferent to the black slavery that still flourishes in Mauritania, a monstrosity that surely cries to Heaven? Why the grotesque silence, given that the situation in the country should be vastly more pressing to anti-racists and the black diaspora than the death of Floyd, a single, relatively privileged American? Had slavery in Mauritania perhaps been brought to an end since my perusal of Le Monde in 2015?
I looked up the 2020 report on the country compiled by Human Rights Watch. Nothing, alas, seems to have changed. Mauritania is still ruled by an apartheid regime controlled by the “Moors”, and, as before:
Mauritanian authorities restrict freedom of speech and assembly especially to muzzle criticism of Mauritania’s record on slavery and discrimination based on caste or ethnicity. The death penalty is mandatory for “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious” … While the government has criminalised slavery, human rights and anti-slavery groups denounce its persistence.
Human Rights Watch also tells us: “Child marriage, female genital mutilation and other forms of gender-based violence endure.” One wonders whether they “endure” for the same reason as black slavery, to whit, the warm support of Islam and its founder, transgression of whose “precepts” attracts an immediate sentence of death?
A news report by Silja Fröhlich on Deutsche Welle, first transmitted on August 22, 2019, and now online, reveals that the Arab-Berber practice of enslaving and selling black Africans is by no means confined to Mauritania or other states in the Sahel like Niger, where slavery has always been endemic. In her piece, “East Africa’s Forgotten Slave Trade”, Ms Fröhlich tells us:
Over several centuries countless East Africans were sold as slaves by Muslim Arabs to the Middle East and other places via the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean. Experts say it is time for this to be discussed more openly.
The report notes that, after the Arabs’ invasion and gradual conquest of North Africa between 639 and 698 AD, religion was used to justify the mass seizure and transport of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to the newly Islamised cities of Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Iraq and the Maghreb. According to Ms Fröhlich, this trade arose:
seven centuries before Europeans explored the continent and ten centuries before West Africans were sold across the Atlantic to America. Back then, Arab Muslims in North and East Africa sold captured Africans to the Middle East … Scientific research concludes that about three out of four slaves died before they reached the market where they were to be sold. The causes were hunger, illness or exhaustion after long journeys.
Fröhlich then interviews Tidiane N’Diaye, a Senegalese anthropologist whose 2008 book Le Génocide Voilé (“The Veiled Genocide”) is one of the few studies by a black author of Islamic slaving in Africa and its demographic effect on the black population. It was a “genocide”, according to N’Diaye, because the male slaves were almost always castrated. As well as decimating them, given the primitive surgery involved, the (in his view) “racist” Muslim world prevented by this means the emergence of the sort of large black diaspora that characterises the Americas. It also meant, however, that it would require a perpetual supply of new African slaves, which, he insists, it continues to receive. Fröhlich’s interview goes on:
N’Diaye estimates that 17 million East Africans were sold into slavery [as against the 12 million West Africans sent by European slavers in ships to North and South America and the Caribbean]: “Most people still have the so-called Transatlantic [slave] trade by Europeans into the New World in mind. But in reality the Arab-Muslim slavery was much greater,” N’Diaye said. “Eight million Africans were brought from East Africa via the Trans-Saharan route to Morocco or Egypt. A further nine million were deported to regions on the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean” … According to author N’Diaye … slavery still exists … “they say they have abolished slavery, but in reality the situation in North Africa [the Arab-Berber hub for Sub-Saharan slaves] has not changed much. Young people are enslaved against their will, forced to work and sexually exploited … Most of the African authors have not yet published a book on the Arab-Muslim slave trade out of religious solidarity. There are 500 million Muslims in Africa, and it is better to blame the West.”
African intellectuals, of course, are not the only ones who would rather focus on the Western past of African slavery than its Muslim present. Deutsche Welle is Germany’s version of the BBC World Service, but its artless exposure of how Islam ensures that black slavery “endures” all over the continent would certainly never have been transmitted by that tendentious oracle. As for the ABC, it would probably have emulated “Mauritanian justice” and arraigned Deutsche Welle for “racist propaganda”.
Then there is the problem of Tidiane N’Diaye’s Le Génocide Voilé itself. The book has been well received in the French-speaking world, especially in francophone Africa, where the Islamic slave trade is most problematic. It has been translated into German and nominated for the Prix Renaudot in France. Curiously, there has been no English translation of this explosive and topical exposé. No British, American or Australian publisher has purchased the book, despite the industry’s obsession with slavery, colonialism and race.
Mr N’Diaye himself is convinced that “woke” black and white Westerners are uniting with Muslim actors to keep “the veiled genocide” on the road. They would rather see “structural racism” abolished in the West than slavery in Africa. “It’s as if a virtual pact had been concluded between the victims’ descendants and their tormentors,” he complains, furious that the African slaves of today obtain almost no support from the West’s anti-racist journalists, politicians and celebrities, or from America’s black leadership, who prefer to luxuriate in polemics about the Atlantic trade that was brought to an end 160 years ago. He is appalled at how indifferent they are to the liberation of today’s African captives, on whom all the horrors of the antebellum South continue to descend. “Black lives” seem to matter infinitely less to “Black Lives Matter” than dead white explorers and the metal statues of Confederate generals.
Arab money is also to blame, according to N’Diaye. The degenerate Gulf dictatorships fund “Islamic studies” courses and centres in many Australian, American and British universities, most famously those of Oxford and Cambridge. These institutions are not only tainted by the black (and other) slavery that these states tolerate within their borders, but by the blatant exaltation of Islamic racism in the courses and centres funded. The way global history is taught in these facilities is certainly singular: Islamic acts of slaving, genocide and imperialism (for instance in Africa, India and Spain) are praised or extenuated, while the same phenomena are the object of angry censure if perpetrated by “infidel” powers like Britain. It is superfluous to add that no activist enraged by the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel has ever marched against these infinitely more obvious altars to slavery, bigotry and colonisation.
For the greatest obstacle to finally ending African slavery is not Muslim self-assertion but Western self-reproach. Yeats famously said: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” In the same way, out of the West’s quarrel with itself it used to create Christian repentance, but, out of the wish to look good by not quarrelling with others, it now creates self-reproach, a repudiation of its own civilisation.
Self-reproach is the worst form of Western narcissism, fatal alike to the West and the parasites it mobilises. These ingenious hustlers end up with no higher goal than to live as parasites always. Is this not the tragic ambition of too many indigenous Australians, for example? What slavery is worse than that, a slavery that is chosen? Perhaps the slavery that has not been chosen, the fate of the Muslim chattels in the Africa of today.
The pressure to end racism, slavery and imperialism must clearly be brought to bear most heavily in those places where the public most supports such practices, not where the local population’s ethnicity makes it most vulnerable to lucrative hustling.
Islam teaches that racism, slavery and imperialism are noble as long as they are inflicted on infidels. Can anyone be surprised then, that in the Muslim world support for racism, slavery and imperialism is high? The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once observed: “Barbarism is the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made.” Opponents of racism and slavery very soon realise that there are no “standards to which an appeal can be made” in the Islamic world.
While there is neither money nor kudos in trying to end the Muslim slave trade, however, the likes of Black Lives Matter know that one can parasitise the milch cow that is the “evil” (in fact good because self-critical) West ad infinitum for far less grievous infractions. Why should they bother to stray beyond the West when they know they have already hit the motherlode?
As a press officer, I saw how the media would highlight only those events that seemed to confirm an existing orthodoxy, while ignoring or downplaying facts that were portentous but troubling. I should have learned from this “génocide voilé” that, in a world ruled by those who do nothing but proclaim their virtue, evil will always have the last word.
Harry Cummins is the author of Magnetic Island: A Novel, published last year by Connor Court. He contributed the article “Our Epidemic of Self-Reproach and its Costs” to the June issue.