Lazy Assumptions Breed Islamophobia
In a recent article, ("Averting Our Eyes From Slavery,"
Dec. 27) columnist Nat Hentoff wondered aloud why Jesse Jackson
and other liberal leaders have not been more forthcoming on the
issue of "Islamic enslavement of black Christians and animists
Perhaps this hesitancy results from a reluctance to indulge in
politically and religiously motivated sensationalism that plays
on and amplifies existing Islamophobic tendencies in Western society.
Mr. Hentoff demonstrated the nastier aspects of this trend with
his use of offensive terms such as "Islamic enslavement"
and his references to Muslim bashers like Pat Robertson. (Does Mr.
Hentoff refer to the centuries long history of Biblically-justified
American slavery as "Christian enslavement"?)
Mr. Robertson was recently quoted on the "700 Club" saying,
"To see Americans become followers of, quote, Islam, is nothing
short of insanity..." In his book, "The New World Order,"
he suggested American Muslims be barred from public office. In 1991,
he objected to an American Muslim offering a prayer before Congress.
Is this really the company Mr. Hentoff wishes to keep?
Mr. Hentoff also cites the work of anti-slavery activists Sam Cotton
and Charles Jacobs. Has he examined their claims, or does he just
accept the allegations without question?
Perhaps Mr. Hentoff never read the June 16, 1997, issue of The
New Republic, in which David Hecht, the BBC's correspondent in Senegal,
responded to attacks on his reporting about the situation in Mauritania
from both Jacobs and Cotton. Hecht, who authored a book on government
in Africa, wrote:
"It's good news that Charles Jacobs no longer believes there
are 'slave raids,' though that's what he told Congress on March
13, 1996...Yes, there is a slave (and master) mentality in Africa,
but nothing like the dehumanized institutions that Frederick Douglass
had to fight in America."
Lest one think Hecht is alone in his analysis of the situation
in Mauritania and Sudan, let me quote from the State Department's
Mauritania Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996:
"Slavery in the form of officially sanctioned forced or involuntary
servitude, is extremely rare, and a system of slavery in which government
and society join to force individuals to serve masters no longer
exists...Countless numbers of citizens, whether Moor or Afro-Mauritanian,
continue to call themselves 'slave' even though they are legally
free to live and work where they choose."
And this from a recent Sudan Foundation report (http://www.sufo.demon.co.uk/deb004.htm),
in which that non-Muslim organization denies the existence of state-sponsored
slavery in Sudan:
"The eyewitness reports of slavery published in the Western
media are often naive misunderstandings of other facts. Outside
those areas controlled by the Sudanese Government, the old practice
of inter-tribal feuding continues. In these raids prisoners are
taken, who must then be ransomed. What looks like the purchase of
slaves is actually the redemption of prisoners of war.
"The more knowledgeable claims of slavery usually come from
people who are at war with the present Sudanese Government - men
like John Garang, leader of the faction of the Sudan People's Liberation
Army that remains outside the Peace Process; and men like Sadiq
el-Mahdi, Prime Minister in the 1980s and now leader of the northern
opposition. Ironically, these men are themselves both guilty of
terrible human rights abuses."
And it is not just Muslims or their "fellow travelers"
who dispute these allegations. Alex de Waal, co-director of African
Rights, has stated: "There is no evidence for centrally-organized,
government-directed slave raiding or slave trade." (Covert
Action Quarterly, Spring, 1997, p.63) Anti-Slavery International
has also stated that, "The charge that government troops engage
in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves in not backed by the
evidence." (Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London,
1997, p. 20)
Mr. Hentoff states that "slavery in Sudan has been shown on
network television." Has it really?
In "The McNair Report on Slavery and Slavery-like Practices
in Sudan" (Nov. 1997), Lord McNair, a Liberal Democrat member
of the British House of Lords, states in reference to the now famous
"purchase of slaves" by reporters from The Baltimore Sun:
"It is clear to me...that the journalists from The Baltimore
Sun were in no way 'buying slaves.' What they were taking part in
was a corrupted example of the way some Sudanese families are forced
to redeem children or other relatives who have been abducted in
the course of the inter-tribal raiding and conflict that has spiraled
in Sudan because of the continuing civil war. The man they paid
money to for the two children was not a slave trader, and the venue
was not a slave market...such sensationalist efforts could in themselves
fuel the process whereby children and others are abducted to provide
'slaves for sale' to naove Western journalists or publicity hunters."
One point Mr. Hentoff is probably not aware of is the reluctance
of certain anti-slavery and human rights groups to work with Muslims
or liberals on these issues. I personally left a message with Mr.
Jacobs' organization requesting documentation to support his allegations.
To date, I have had no response.
In another instance, I had a long discussion with the leader of
another group formed to promote human rights in the Muslim world.
This leader told me our organization could not join his coalition
because we believe in Islamic law, and that by definition, Islamic
law violates human rights. He seemed undisturbed when I told him
that it was probably illegal to use someone's faith as justification
for denying membership in a group.
And as New York Times Magazine reporter Jeffrey Goldberg wrote
in a recent expose of the infighting currently taking place within
the group of conservative anti-slavery advocates, "...their
defense of persecuted Christians is a means to an end, the end being
to overturn the established - that is, liberal - order." (New
York Times Magazine, Dec. 21, 1997)
American Muslims stand ready to fight the scourge of slavery. After
all, it was the Prophet Muhammad himself who, more than 1400 years
ago, said in his last sermon: "...a white person has no superiority
over a black person, nor a black has any superiority over white
except by piety and good action."
However, to be effective, those who engage in this struggle must
free themselves of unacknowledged political or religious agendas,
anti-Muslim stereotyping or cultural bias.