The persistence of history | Islam and Slavery – The Economist

Good and needed piece:

But while IS’s embrace of outright slavery has been singled out for censure, religious and political leaders have been more circumspect about other “slave-like” conditions prevalent across the region. IS’s targeting of an entire sect for kidnapping, killing and sex trafficking, and its bragging, are exceptional; forced labour for sexual and other forms of exploitation is not. From Morocco, where thousands of children work as petites bonnes, or maids, to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan where girls are forced into prostitution, to the unsanctioned rape and abuse of domestics in the Gulf, aid workers say servitude is rife.

Scholars are sharply divided over how much cultural mores are to blame. Apologists say that, in a concession to the age, the Prophet Muhammad tolerated slavery, but—according to a prominent American theologian trained in Salifi seminaries, Yasir Qadhi—he did so grudgingly and advocated abolition. Repeatedly in the Koran the Prophet calls for the manumission of slaves and release of captives, seeking to alleviate the slave systems run by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Jewish Himyarite kings of Yemen. He freed one slave, a chief’s daughter, by marrying her, and chose Bilal, another slave he had freed, to recite the first call to prayer after his conquest of Mecca. His message was liberation from worldly oppression, says Mr Qadhi—enslavement to God, not man.

Other scholars insist, however, that IS’s treatment of Yazidis adheres to Islamic tradition. “They are in full compliance with Koranic understanding in its early stages,” says Professor Ehud Toledano, a leading authority on Islamic slavery at Tel Aviv University. Moreover, “what the Prophet has permitted, Muslims cannot forbid.” The Prophet’s calls to release slaves only spurred a search for fresh stock as the new empire spread, driven by commerce, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Persian Gulf.

… No labour practice has drawn more international criticism than the kafala system, which ties migrant workers to their employers. This is not slavery as IS imposes it; migrants come voluntarily, drawn by the huge wealth gap between their own countries and the Gulf. But the system “facilitates slavery”, says Nicholas McGeehan, who reports for Human Rights Watch on conditions in the desert camps where most such workers live. The Gulf’s 2.4m domestic servants are even more vulnerable. Most do not enjoy the least protection under labour laws. Housed and, in some cases, locked in under their employer’s roof, they are prey to sexual exploitation.

Again, these workers have come voluntarily; but disquieting echoes persist. Many Gulf nationals can be heard referring to their domestics as malikat (slaves). Since several Asian governments have suspended or banned their female nationals from domestic work in the Gulf out of concern for their welfare, recruitment agencies are turning to parts of Africa, such as Uganda, which once exported female slaves. Some domestic servants are abused with irons and red-hot bars: resonant, says Mr McGeehan, of slave-branding in the past.

….Gulf states insist they are dealing with the problem. In June Kuwait’s parliament granted domestic servants labour rights, the first Gulf state to do so. It is also the only Gulf state to have opened a refuge for female migrants. Qatar, fearful that reported abuses might upset its hosting of the World Cup in 2022, has promised to improve migrant housing. And earlier this year Mauritania’s government ordered preachers at Friday prayers to publicise a fatwa by the country’s leading clerics declaring: “Slavery has no legal foundation in sharia law.” Observers fear, though, that this is window-dressing. And Kuwait’s emir has yet to ratify the new labour-rights law.

Rather than stop the abuse, Gulf officials prefer to round on their critics, accusing them of Islamophobia just as their forebears did. Oman and Saudi Arabia have long been closed to Western human-rights groups investigating the treatment of migrants. Now the UAE and Qatar, under pressure after a wave of fatalities among workers building venues for the 2022 World Cup, are keeping them out, too.

Internal protests are even riskier. Over the past two years hundreds of migrant labourers building Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre museums have been detained, roughed up and deported, says Human Rights Watch, after strikes over unpaid wages. Aminetou Mint Moctar, a rare Mauritanian Arab on the board of SOS Esclaves, a local association campaigning for the rights of haratin, or descendants of black slaves, has received death threats.

Is it too much to hope that the Islamic clerics denouncing slavery might also condemn other instances of forced and abusive labour? Activists and Gulf migrants are doubtful. Even migrants’ own embassies can be strangely mute, not wanting criticism to curb the vital flow of remittances. When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, visited the UAE this week, his nationals there complained that migrant rights were last on his list. Western governments generally have other priorities. One is simply to defeat IS, whose extreme revival of slavery owes at least something to the region’s persistent and pervasive tolerance of servitude.

The persistence of history | The Economist.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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