Vol. 5 Num 61 Tue. July 27, 2004  

Slaves in Saudi

On July 15, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the condition of Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. The revelation that "Guest Workers" are systematically abused in Saudi Arabia should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with that region's history. What a shame that it took Sarah Whitson, executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, to finally speak the unpalatable truth. "We found men and women in conditions resembling slavery," said Whitson in the press conference announcing their findings. The report described "the pervasive abuses foreign workers endure...the abysmal and exploitative labor conditions many workers face, and the utter failure of the justice system to provide redress." The real question is this -- why did the Islamic world not uncover these human rights abuses, so close to the holy city of Mecca?

Based on interviews taken in Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, HRW found abysmal and exploitative labor practices, wanton rape of women workers, and beheading of guest workers accused of crimes without proper legal process. Anyone who has visited Saudi Arabia knows the racism with which ordinary Saudis treats the brown and black-skinned masses that come for Hajj. Like hundreds of Bangladeshis every year, my parents endured these indignities during their recent pilgrimage. When he returned from Mecca, my father told me, "To them, we will always be miskeen (beggar). Doesn't matter what we do, or where we come from. They see our skin and don't need to see more." If this is how pilgrims are treated, imagine how much worse is the plight of the "Guest Worker." Yet, we Muslims remain silent on these abuses -- after all the Saudis are the keepers of Islam's holiest site, so they cannot possibly be racist!

How appropriate as well that HRW used the phrase "slavery" to describe conditions inside the desert kingdom. Saudi Arabia was in fact one of the last nation-states to abolish slavery. Along with Yemen, the Saudis only abolished slavery in 1962. Prior to that, the Islamic world's experience with slavery was extremely problematic. Muslims once led the rest of the world in science, culture and human emancipation. The positive examples are numerous and often-repeated. However, the advances brought about in the early days of the Islamic Caliphate ossified, with very little innovation or re-interpretation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As Lewis explains it, although slavery and the taking of concubines was legal in the Islamic world, in practice it was far milder than that practiced in nineteenth century North and South America. Henri Dunant, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, visited North Africa in 1860 and commented on the "relative mildness" of the slavery practiced there. As compared to ancient Rome and modern colonial systems, Islam gave the slave a certain legal status and the slave-owner also had obligations (as well as rights).

Although the Islamic world started off by giving more rights to slaves than in the European colonies, as with many other areas, these progressive positions did not keep up with changing times. By the early nineteenth century, Britain, under pressure from domestic abolitionists, had abolished slavery in its colonies. Slave-trading was declared an "international crime" and traders were to be punished wherever they were encountered. With this newly liberal outlook, the British Empire soon came into conflict with the Ottoman Empire's practice of slavery.

In the struggle for emancipation of slaves, there was double-layered racism that favored the white slaves. Many of the white slaves in the Ottoman and Persian empire were Georgians, Circassians and other Caucasians. These slaves were eventually freed due to the Ottoman's own internal pressure for legal reform. However, in the case of black slaves, British pressure was a key factor in their eventual emancipation. The Persians initially rejected the British push for emancipation of slaves in 1846, but eventually a compromise agreement was reached. Over in the Ottoman Empire, an 1830 ferman freed all Christian slaves who had not converted. Oddly, slaves who had converted to Islam were not freed (perhaps due to the British focus on Christian slaves). Finally, in 1857, again under British pressure, a second ferman was issued banning trafficking in black slaves throughout the Empire, with special exception for the Hijaz.

There was also, by now, internal pressure to reform slavery in the Islamic world. The Bey of Tunis announced in 1846 that every black slave who asked for it would receive a "deed of enfranchisement." In his announcement, he also noted that Muslim jurists were divided about the legal basis for slavery. One noted anti-slavery advocate was Moroccan writer Ahmad Khalid al-Nasiri, who accepted the legality of slavery under Muslim law, but vigorously protested its application. He wrote in the 1800's, condemning "the unlimited enslavement of the blacks and the importation of many droves of them every year, for sale in the town and country markets of the Maghrib, where men traffic in them like beasts, or worse." (Kitab al-Istiqsa, Casablanca, 1955)

The unpalatable truth is that, the Ottoman and Persian empires were one of the last to abolish slavery, falling far behind their European counterparts in matters of human emancipation. Full abolition of slavery did not come until the twentieth century, with Saudi Arabia holding out until 1962. Given that desert kingdom's shameful record on this basic human right, it was no surprise to read Human Rights Watch's report and find that today's migrant workers are kept in conditions of "near-slavery."

The Muslim world is sliding backwards into medievalism, and it is time for reformers to speak openly and bravely. There is a cancer that is eating away at our soul -- a disease marked by paranoia, double standards and virulent racism. While we are in full-throated cry against abuses in Iraq and Palestine, we stay completely silent when it is Muslims who are the abusers (of both non-Muslims and Muslims).

How else to explain our outpouring of sympathy for the Bosnian genocide, but our complete silence on the ongoing genocide in Sudan? In that country's civil war between the Arab Muslim North, and the black Christian and Animist South, 2 million people have been killed to date. In a BBC profile of the hundreds of black Africans who have been raped by pro-government Janjaweed Arab militia, one victim described the attackers: "They called me Abeid (slave in Arabic)."

Shame on the Muslim world for staying silent!

Naeem Mohaiemen is the director of Muslims or Heretics? a documentary on the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims.