Biram Ould Abeid and Slavery in Mauritania
Brahim El Guabli 31 May 2012

The unprecedented burning of a collection of Islamic jurisprudence books by the Mauritanian Muslim human rights activist, Biram Ould Abeid, drew the world’s attention to the plight of a large number of his co-citizens, caught in the throes of modern day slavery. He alleges that these books are responsible for the sustainability of slavery for they endow it with religious legitimacy. Therefore, he and a dozen other members of the non-profit organization IRA, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania, set a collection of Maliki jurisprudence books on fire on April 28th 2012 after the Friday communal prayer.

Different factors converge to make the number of slaves in the country questionable and unreliable, and therefore, warrant their very cautious use. Firstly, the divergence of interests of the multiple stakeholders affects their statistics. Secondly, the Mauritanian government is too ashamed to provide any statistics about a practice it has supposedly ended since 1981. However, it is safe to speak of tens if not hundreds of thousands of slaves in modern Mauritania. The numbers might increase and decrease depending on the sources, but the core issue is that slavery continues to exist despite its official abolition in 1981, and subsequent criminalization by law in 2007.

The leader of the book burning is named Biram Ould Abeid. He is a well known human rights and political activist, and he is mostly known for the establishment of IRA in 2007. A dauntless and daring speaker who used his speaking tours outside Mauritania to criticize the situation of human rights in his home country, protest against discrimination and slavery in particular. A pioneer activist who is always at the forefront of demonstrations against human rights abuse and molestation of human dignity, Biram used his international standing, as a credible activist, to focus the world’s attention on this shameful issue and bash a state whose policies mete out injustice to his co-citizens.

However, Biram is not only a human rights activist; he combines both human rights and political activism. He calls for the establishment of a genuine democracy where all the citizens will be treated equally; a country where citizens enjoy all the rights conferred upon them by their status as Mauritanians. He made a very clear request that “public authorities ask for pardon in the name of the state from the victims of racketeering and slavery, punish all the criminals, give its instructions to the territorial administration, and the judiciary to sue all the practitioners of slavery, and implement the law. The state should acknowledge […] harratin’s rights and should stop protecting criminals”. According to Biram, the Mauritanian Arabo-Berber minority elite wield power and established a discriminatory regime. Putting an end to slavery, hence, requires the democratization of the country and treating harratin as citizens entirely entitled to equal rights. Finally, he called for a peaceful revolution—in light of the Arab uprisings that changed regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—to establish a genuine democracy.

The religious establishment in Mauritania was not spared by Biram’s scathing criticism. He kept accusing the ‘ulama—religious scholars—of being part and parcel of the sustenance of slavery. He condemns the stance of the majority of Mauritanian ‘ulama on it; a stance that according to him “does not satisfy any hartani” and goes on to challenge the religious establishment: “I say loudly what others whisper. I shoulder the responsibility to confront the corrupt clergy till the end. They deserve to live in another era […]. They nurture ambiguity and refuse to condemn slavery unequivocally. They bury their heads in tricks and word games in order to protract the life of unwarranted practices. Let me say to them that as long as their leadership and spiritual symbols continue their support for torturers, through their fatwas and decisions, we will continue to defend the victims and we will therefore confront them at all times.”

This opinion rhymes interestingly with another accusation leveled by of Dr. Mohammad Ben Al Mokhtar Chenguiti against Islamic jurists. He accused them of playing “strangley with the Quranic text at times to deepen disparity in the most sacred human right which is the right to life.” Biram’s criticism, however, is not limited to the ‘ulama only; the Mauritanian left is “servitude friendly and malignant” and the Arab nationalists are fascists. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the so many powerful opinions expressed publicly and without qualms by this abolitionist. His opinions and actions did not pass unnoticed for he has been in jail since April 29th 2012 awaiting trial for “violation of sacred Islamic values of the Mauritanian people” and “threatening the security of the state” after his controversial burning of Maliki jurisprudence books. He and his IRA colleagues face death penalty or life imprisonment in addition to forced labor indicted.

IRA’s radical protestation brought the necessary media attention to the existence of the “peculiar institution” in Mauritania. Thousands of people are caught in the slavery machine of the 20th century in a society where tribal ties and a caste system can still define one’s place in society. The Hassani, Znaga, harratin, griots, and slaves are all synonyms of a class system that overlays tremendous social and political implications. Hence the reminding force of unsettling actions, like the one carried out by IRA on April 29th; they serve as a reminder that a deep reflection is needed to end a peculiar situation where people are owned, sold and treated like commodities in the era of human rights and civil movements. We may or may not agree with Biram’s and his group’s strategy, but we cannot but admire its provocation of the circles that needed to be provoked. Religion cannot condone enslaving people in our time while the Moroccan ‘ulama were against slavery in the 18th century; on the contrary religion should stand as a bulwark against slavery. Therefore, burning jurisprudence books is not a goal in itself but rather a wakeup call for those who sleep on their laurels believing that slavery is legitimate by the force of jurisprudence. They forget that if the latter is not adequate to our era, it should be totally abrogated. The juristic effort (ijtihad) being a personal opinion reached after deep intellectual effort is fallible and should not be taken as a scared truth, especially if it contradicts the values of our time.

This burning has also exposed the hypocrisy of both religious scholars and society. Instead of focusing on the primacy of human life and dignity, they set out to defend books whose veracity is questionable; our civilizational progress has consecrated the priority of human rights and hallowed the human life and individual liberties, and anything that contradicts this rule should not be binding. It would have been way more beneficial for the Mauritanians to hear new arguments that forbid, prohibit, sanction and condemn slavery. Considering slavery a crime and acting upon it to arrest, try and decry people who are implicated in its practice would also have been the best answer to Biram’s provocative initiative. Yet, the messenger was arrested and the message was left unread; when messages are left unread people resort to newer and more provocative ways to make their voice heard.

I deem the following three opinions, from respectable Mauritanian jurists, illustrative of the divisiveness of this situation. Ahmad Mahdi Fakih published a fatwa titled “lifting embarrassment on what Biram did”. He saw neither heresy nor disbelief in IRA’s initiative. Moreover, he stated that “burning a collection of jurisprudence books cannot be considered neither disbelief nor apostasy, neither perversity nor heresy; especially if we know that the burned books are at the center of much controversy in the juristic milieus and fikh councils” adding that “[m]any jurists cast doubt on the veracity of the attribution of the Mudawwana to Imam Malik…” His goal was to bring ijtihad back to its right place by noting that the books are “not sacred, they are neither Quran nor tradition. They are only books, written by individuals based on their intellectual effort. They wrote them with their own hands. Some of them were illiterate who did not know the book [Quran] except wishfully. These books were authored during an era and in a place different from ours. Therefore, it is possible for us to discuss burning or burying them.” The second opinion was relayed in Ahmed Ould Hine’s fatwa to Taqaddoumy website. In his fatwa titled “the book burning: perversity and ignorance.” He argued that “if burning books in disregard [of Islam] and describing them as books of slavery, and dishonoring the jurists, if these are not considered perversity and audacity against God, then there is perversity” before lashing out human rights organizations and calling people to not “trust human rights organizations that seek refuge in the West and align themselves with it, and dare burning Islamic books in a humiliating and shameful way”.

The third opinion was expressed by Dr. Mohamed Ould El Mokhtar Chenguiti. He published a paper titled “the story of slavery in the Maliki books”. His was a rational call to reflect on what happened with open minds “instead of burning the jurisprudence books provocatively or defending them emotionally, it is necessary to read them with open minds to distinguish between religion and religiosity, between Islamic law and jurisprudence, and between revelation and history. This is not an ephemeral issue in a very remote country; the issue in its core is about the future of Islam in the era of freedom.” He argued that “our inherited jurisprudence—as a human production and not revelation—is not all justice or all mercy, not all interest and not all wisdom. It is, however, the result of the jurists’ understanding of revelation, and this understanding’s interaction with the socio-cultural heritages prior to Islam and with the oppressive social reality that dominated their time”.

These three reactions delineate the divisiveness that exists in the Mauritanian society over this sensitive issue that shifted to occupy the religious sphere. The most conspicuous thing in the first two fatwas, however, was their total shirking of the core issue over which this debate was started. The fact that none of them addressed the issue of slavery as a practiced and protested against societal problem in Mauritania today can only be interpreted as a fuite en avant; to avoid embarrassment or spare oneself the backlash of being cast in the vortex of a protracted practice that has sociopolitical implications that could be detrimental to their standing in society.

Mauritania is the only country in the world where slavery exists in the real sense of the word with the exception the loathsome sponsor regime in the Gulf. Slavery simply means “ownership of a human being by another human being”; this ownership entitles the owner to treat “the owned” as a commodity that can be sold, purchased and inherited with no qualms, and without the “owned” having any say on their destiny. This shameful practice turns human beings into saleable and pursuable objects, and it so far has managed to sustain itself in Mauritania for various factors. Political corruption, lack of political will, the tribal composition of society, social norms and the vastness of the Mauritanian territory might be cited among many other factors that might explain the continuity of such a practice. Therefore, fighting a socially accepted practice, like slavery, requires a multiform struggle at the human rights, educational and politico-religious levels to deconstruct the politico-religious and social infrastructures that perdure its existence.

IRA’s initiative sought to sap the religious foundation from which slavery, in both its individual and collective forms, derives its legitimacy. The collective slavery takes the form of political and economic domination that an array of institutions has been established over time to provide with intellectual frameworks and religious legal support vital to its survival. Some people inherit states, others inherit parties and some inherit leadership; they inherit everything including the people. Therefore, the burning of jurisprudence books should also be seen as an opportunity to shake off the shackles of collective slavery under whose burden Arab-Islamic societies continue to suffer. It is time, maybe, to put an end to the religious legitimacy as a source of political authority. It might take a while though.

Image: cc Luis_Jimenez