Sunday, March 25, 2007

Breaking the chains of slavery in Mauritania?

Talk about a coincidence: I blog about slavery in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania only to discover that on this very same day they are having their first free political election:

Voting passed off peacefully in Mauritania on Sunday in the second round of the country's first democratic presidential election since independence from France in 1960.
Some 1.1 million people were eligible to vote in the final stage in Mauritania's gradual return to civilian rule after the military ousted long-time dictator Maaouiya Ould Taya in August 2005.
The runoff pits former minister Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi against longtime opposition politician Ahmed Ould Daddah, a former finance minister and half-brother of post-independence leader Moktar Ould Daddah.
Both are former political prisoners and exiles in a mostly desert country bordering Mali, Algeria, Senegal and Western Sahara twice the size of France but with just 3.1 million inhabitants.

Daddah, 65, who was an ardent critic of ousted dictator Taya, is supported by an array of groups including a first-round candidate representing past slaves.
Abdallahi, a fair-skinned Moor, has pledged to attend to grievances of ex-slaves and has received the support of a candidate representing former slaves who finished fourth in the first round. ...
Surprisingly, Mauritania is one of the three nations in the Arab League to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel! At least, for the time being...:

Both candidates have said they will review the country's diplomatic ties with Israel - a rare relationship in the Arab world which many Mauritanians say should be ended.
What remains unclear are the priorities of the Mauritanian electorate: severing ties with Israel, or severing the Mauritanian tradition of slavery:
In the West African country of Mauritania, chattel slavery has existed for centuries, and thrives today. Black African tribes have served as the inherited property of Arabo-Berber masters for generations.
According to the rules of this ancient institution, even children of slaves are the master's property. As one Mauritanian slave told an investigator, "My belly belongs to my master."
Another remarked: "God created me to be a slave, just as he created the camel to be a camel."
The first step towards abolishing slavery once and for all in the islamic Republic of Mauritania is to figure out just how big a problem it is in the first place... no, make that first acknowledge that it even is a problem:

… A shocking anomaly in the 21st century, [slavery] is widely accepted in a racially diverse, hierarchical society dominated by a Moorish elite and a brand of Islam that preaches submission.
"It's like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves," said Boubacar Messaoud, who was born a slave and is now his country's leading anti-slavery campaigner.
Mauritania's military rulers, who are handing over to civilian rule in democratic elections, shy away from discussing the issue and prefer to talk of "vestiges of slavery."
Some members of the light-skinned elite which has traditionally ruled the country deny slavery exists at all. Questions about it can draw anger, mistrust and silence.
But anti-slavery campaigners say the master-slave relationship and its social repercussions are branded into the minds of all Mauritanians, just as class-consciousness still haunts social discourse in Britain and other European states.
Anti-slavery groups, such as SOS-Slaves run by Messaoud, say the fear and secrecy cloaking the issue make it difficult to bring cases of slavery to light, let alone to court.
Anti-slavery activists say it is impossible to tell how many people remain enslaved in Mauritania ... whose 3 million population mixes white and black Moors and black Mauritanians of several ethnic groups.
Diplomats in Nouakchott say the outgoing junta declined an offer from the European Union to fund an investigative study.
"It's probably fairly widespread. In the houses of the Moors, you see young black boys serving tea. I don't know what their work contracts are but I would not like to have theirs," said one diplomat, who asked not to be named.
He said Mauritania's new president, to be elected in a March 25 run-off between two white Moor frontrunners, would have to tackle slavery and enduring social and racial inequality: "It's at the heart of this country's imbalances."
Historians say slavery developed in Mauritania from the 7th century, when Arab invaders pushed south into Sub-Saharan Africa, bringing their Islamic religion which explicitly allowed the enslavement of non-believers.
This blossomed into a Trans-Saharan Slave Trade that captured black Africans several centuries before the peak of the European-run Atlantic Slave Trade.
This religious sanctioning of slavery -- and the establishment of Arabicised Berber ruling castes whose wealth was partially based on it -- has marked Mauritanian society.
"There is a racial policy here ... It's the politics of domination," said Boulkheir, adding that Islamic law and succession rights guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery, passing on ownership from master to son.

[Monday update: Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi won the presidential election, with nearly 53% of the vote]

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