Interview with Mauritanian human rights activist Biram Dah Abeid

"Time to end Arab racism"

Today in Mauritania, children are still being born into slavery. Not only that, they will remain slaves for the rest of their lives. It is the most prevalent and most extreme expression of Arab racism in North Africa, says human rights activist Biram Dah Abeid and it is time to consign it to the past. By Claudia Mende

Slavery has been officially banned in Mauritania for the past 36 years. In 2007 a new law was introduced that allowed slave owners to be prosecuted. What types of slavery still exist in the country in spite of this?

Biram Dah Abeid: Many babies born in Mauritania come into the world as the property of others. According to the Global Slavery Index, up to 160,000 people in the country are currently living in conditions of slavery. The black Africans – Haratins – are often the slaves of the country's Arab-Berber elite, the white Moors, who make up about one third of the population. The Haratins are bonded to the family of their master, have no right to education, no civil rights, earn no money and are often forced to do very hard work.

How is this tradition passed on?

Dah Abeid: Traditionally the slaves are not sold; they are given away as children when the master's children marry and start their own families. Females are the property of the masters from birth, they are expected to gratify his sexual desires and are not permitted to refuse his advances. Alongside this traditional bondage, there are also some modern forms of slavery being practised.

What's the difference?

Dah Abeid: This involves black Mauritanians and migrants from other African countries. They are forced to do hard, poorly paid labour and are mistreated by their Arab-Berber masters. The men and children tend animals and the women are put to work as domestic servants under very harsh conditions.

The Mauritanian government claims that traditional slavery is rare and restricted to the remoter areas of the country.

Dah Abeid: That simply isn't true. The government wants to play the whole thing down. Our organisation, the IRA (Initiative pour la Resurgence du Mouvement Abolutioniste en Mauritanie) has freed many people from slavery over the years. We've also encountered cases where Haratins were being kept as slaves in some of the upmarket neighbourhoods in Nouakchott, where the ruling elite live.

Haratins protesting against slavery in Nouakchott, Mauritania (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Slavery – still the custom in Mauritania: increasing the rule of law and prosecuting human traffickers will not put paid to North Africa′s endemic racism, says Ulrich Delius, director of the "Gesellschaft fur bedrohte Volker" (GfbV). The continuing existence of slavery in Mauritania has been widely ignored by the dominant Arab Muslim society there

This Arab racism towards black people is to be found throughout the Sahel region, between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. But it is very pronounced in Mauritania. Why is that?

Dah Abeid: The lifestyle of the Moors has always been closely connected to slavery. After their arrival in Mauritania between the 14th and the 18th centuries, they either drove the original inhabitants out to the south or enslaved them. Since then, it has been the custom to get certain types of "inferior" work done by black Africans.

And the impact of that is still being felt today?

Dah Abeid: Exactly. Nowadays the Moors are desperate to hold on to their privileges and they do everything they can to complicate or delay the abolition of slavery. The entire apparatus of the state – from the president and the judiciary to parliament – is in the hands of the Arab-Berber elite, who are clinging with all their might to their traditional lifestyle.

Is it actually possible for you to fight for your goals in Mauritania?

Dah Abeid: I was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison for organising a nationwide caravan of protest for the abolition of all forms of slavery. Although I was released early, I was no longer able to organise any meetings or protests. Human rights protesters are continually being arrested or thrown into prison. That's why I decided to leave Nouakchott and go to Dakar in Senegal to carry on my fight from there.

Do you get any support from Islamic authorities?

Dah Abeid: Unfortunately, the religious leaders in Mauritania do not condemn slavery, because they too belong to the Arab-Berber elite.  I have been trying for years to get the Supreme Council for Fatwas and Complaints to pronounce an Islamic ban on slavery; there came a point however when I had to stop, because I realized it was hopeless. The ruling elite have used Islam to justify slavery. They see the enslavement of people as the sixth pillar of Islam – in addition to the five pillars that apply to all Muslims.

What does that mean for the opponents of slavery?

Dah Abeid: They are considered anti-Islamic, because slavery is deemed a holy act ordained by God. My fellow campaigners and I were excommunicated by the religious authorities and declared to be outside Islam, apostates, who deserved to die. That is their version of Islam. I am a practising Muslim and have just recently returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, but my vision of Islam is based on the equality of all human beings, a vision to which the idea of slavery is anathema.

Is there any debate on the question of racism against black people in the Arab world?

Dah Abeid: Apart from a few exceptions, the Arab world has not even begun to question its attitude to sub-Saharan Africa. Arabs see blacks as inferior; so the idea of the equality of all peoples, regardless of skin colour or ethnicity, is something the Arab societies deny. It is a racist attitude that can be traced back to the era of the slave trade.

It was not only the Europeans who shipped millions of Africans as slave labour to Latin America in the 17th and 18th centuries.  There was an Arab slave trade that was equally involved in bleeding Africa dry. It is something the Arab world has so far barely even attempted to come to terms with and at the present time, I don't see any meaningful developments towards ending racism against black people.

There are now a few voices calling for something to be done. So we are hoping that they will multiply and grow stronger and initiate a debate that will consign Arab racism to history.

Do you see any African responsibility for slavery and human trafficking?

Dah Abeid: Africans have to stop viewing the slave trade as a purely white phenomenon. There was an Arab slave trade, but ethnic groups such as the Fula and the Tuareg were also involved. Ultimately, the African elites must also acknowledge their contribution to this dark chapter of history.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Biram Dah Abeid, himself the son of freed slaves, has long campaigned for the rights of the Haratins. In 2013 he received the United Nations Human Rights Award for his commitment to their cause.

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