Mauritania: Human Rights Activists Accuse Islamic Jurisdiction of Legitimizing Slavery

Recently, the issue of slavery has taken center stage in Mauritania.  In the beginning of May, a Mauritanian human rights organization decided to reopen the debate by denouncing the continued existence of slaves in the country.

To get people's attention, this organization burned books of the Islamic Maliki school of jurisprudence, prevailing in Mauritania, claiming that they provide a religious justification for continuing slavery.  The act of burning books took place at the end of a special prayer for slaves, which emphasized their right to lead Muslims in prayer.  However, the burning of the books sparked fury among the public.  Demonstrations erupted throughout the country in condemnation of what was perceived as an affront to Islam.  As a consequence, the anti-slavery movement apologized to the Mauritanians for the burning of the Maliki books and explained that this was a symbolic act committed to draw attention to jurisprudent views legitimizing slavery.

The Maliki school is inspired by Malik Ibn Anas, who was born in 712 CE in Medina, in a time where slavery was part of the daily reality.  In his writings he refers to how to handle slaves' transactions, a master's right to have sex with female slaves, when a how a slave can be granted freedom, and so on.  Supported by the Maliki school, several Mauritanian Islamic leaders speak openly in favor of slavery.  CNN actually reported that slavery continues in some mosques, particularly in rural areas.

In Mauritania, slavery was officially abolished in 1981, but this development did not change much in the lives of modern-day slaves since it was not accompanied by sanctions against slave-keepers.  It was only in 2007 that Mauritania passed a law that actually criminalizes the act of owning another person.  However, the effects of the new law were hardly tangible since, so far, only one case of slavery has been successfully prosecuted.  According to U.N. estimates, from 10% to 20% of the 3.4 million-strong population of that country still lives under slavery conditions, while many others live in conditions of semi-slavery.

As reported in a CNN story on Mauritania, titled "Slavery's last stronghold," Mauritanian authorities deny that slavery still exists in the country.  "All people are free in Mauritania, and this phenomenon [of slavery] no longer exists," one official told CNN.  Despite the authorities' denial, the CNN exposé reports stories of modern slavery.  Take for example Moulkheir Mint Yarba, a slave who was raped by her master at the age of 13.  After Yarba got pregnant, her master killed the newborn baby to punish her.  After the murder, he told her she would work faster without the child on her back and ordered her to go back to her goat-watching duties.

After the anti-slavery law was passed in 2007, an action group intervened and freed Moulkheir, but her nightmare was not over yet.  She and her children went to work for a former colonel of the Mauritanian army, and, as Moulkheir described it, "[i]t turned out to be worse...he beat me and slept with my daughters.  He would fire above their heads with a gun."  Her daughter Selek'ha was beaten up from the age of 13, and soon the colonel began raping her.  She became pregnant when she was 15.  When she was in her ninth month, the colonel put her in a truck and drove on a bumpy track.  At the end of the ride, the baby came out of the womb dead.

Slavery, however, is supported not only in Mauritania (official abolishment notwithstanding).  In the past years, several Saudi and Egyptian imams have given comments in favor of slavery.  In 2003, a Saudi imam, Sheik Saleh Al-Fawzan, said that "slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam."  He was also reported as saying that "[s]lavery is a part of Islam" and that those Muslims who oppose slavery "are ignorant, not scholars."  In 2011, an Egyptian sheikh, Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini, commented that non-Muslim captives are to be taken to "the slave market, where slave-girls and concubines are sold."

Sudanese professor and scholar Abdullahi An-Na'im in the book Human Rights, Southern Voices tackles the problem of slavery in sharia law.  An-Na'im writes that slavery is lawful under sharia to the present day.  "In my views," comments An-Na'im, "it is utterly abhorrent and morally indefensible for Sharia to continue to sanction slavery today[.] ... The fact that Sharia is permissible under Sharia does have serious practical consequences not only in perpetuating negative social attitudes toward former slavers and segments of the population that used to be a source of slaves, but also in legitimizing forms of secret practices akin to slavery."

It is worth reminding that, apart from Mauritania, according to the FBI, there are more slaves in today's world than there were in any other time in human history.  Worldwide estimates project that 27 million men, women, and children -- even babies -- are in slavery today, a number much greater than any other period in recorded history...and one that is exponentially growing.

This is a problem that is insufficiently tackled by international organizations and world powers.  The first step to solving it is awareness.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci, a Moroccan-Italian journalist and author, is president of the Rome-based Liberal and Democratic Arabs Association.

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