Saturday, August 11, 2007

Melting slavery in Mauritania

"Truth and justice make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty."

So spoke Elizabeth Heyrick, an English Quaker devoted to ending the evil of slavery in the early 19th century. Her anti-slavery views inspired the more famous American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to shift his own activism away from "gradualism", a search for a gradual elimination of slavery, towards "immediatism", the demand for immediate and full emancipation.
"I saw that there was nothing to stand upon, if it could be granted that slavery was, for a moment, right... no valid excuse can be given for the continuance of the evil a single hour."

His uncompromising stand against the continuance of slavery in the United States cost him some support, for there were many abolitionists who felt his goal of complete and sudden change would bring as many new problems as they solved. Any appeals to temper his absolutist position with “practicality” would always be countered with a demonstration of how intolerable it should be to allow slavery to exist in a Christian America built to advance and preserve individual freedom.

Garrison’s immediatism echoes this week within the Islamic republic of Mauritania, in north-west Africa.
I have blogged before on Mauritania’s continuing problem with slavery, and how their newly-elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, promised to see their nation finally confront this ever-present evil in their midst. This isn't kidnapping or trafficking we're talking about; this is chattel slavery, human beings born as slaves, living as property.

This week Mauritania has passed a law promising jail time for slave-holders, “…calling for prison sentences of up to 10 years for people keeping slaves, along with fines for slave-holders and reparations for those who have been enslaved."

What’s particularly noteworthy is the scope of the law’s attacks on slavery:


“In an attempt to change cultural norms, the new law also makes any "cultural or artistic work defending slavery" punishable by two years in prison, and makes it an offense for governmental authorities not to pursue slave-holders.
The law will make invoking common proverbs — such as "One should not buy the slave without the stick" — a punishable offense, said Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, president of the legislature's justice commission.
"This law is going to cause problems for people who are used to talking with impunity, who hold close our people's ancient oral traditions," said Abdou Ould Sidi….”

In Garrison’s time, his immediatism tended to scare away potential allies because it didn’t seem to offer long-term solutions for the slaves themselves, just short-term relief. After all, what would happen the day after emancipation..?

We see these historical concerns echoed this week as well:

"There are slaves who hold onto being slaves because they have no way of changing their situation," said Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a lawyer and human rights activist in Nouakchott.
"It's essentially an economic problem," he said. "I'm am completely against these people remaining slaves, but you can't sanction and criminalize slavery without creating projects to help the poor of this country."

Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, today’s good people ultimately search for the lesser of evils. Befitting humanity’s fallibility, it is a search plagued with stumbles and maddening uncertainties. In trying to do good, do we instead bring injury, and greater misery, rather than progress? Are there cases where stability, inactivity, and toleration of the status quo, are themselves the lesser of evils? Any honest attempt at progress measures both sides before taking action.

Slavery is wrong, such a stain on human dignity, all the more when considered that it can somehow exist **today**, alongside all the freedom and individual liberty that we take so for granted in our daily lives, that for me I can only share Garrison’s, and Mauritania's, immediatism, and applaud what I consider to be rare good news in the world today. In solving one problem, the scourge that is slavery, no doubt other problems will rise in its wake; as a comparatively small point, is it necessary to punish someone for using a proverb..?

Then I am reminded of a conversation William Lloyd Garrison once had with an anti-slavery colleague. His friend tried to convince Garrison to soften his fiery rhetoric, and to moderate his all-or-nothing stand. Garrison looked his friend square in the eye, and replied:

“I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

2 comments:

truepeers said...

Any idea what they're going to do when people use proverbs and write cultural works dealing with the life of Mohammed and slavery? Or is it impossible in their world view to be proverbial and artistic about the prophet?

dag said...

I guess that by now most everyone is familiar with the origins of the song below:

"Amazing Grace"

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

John New­ton, Ol­ney Hymns (Lon­don: W. Ol­i­ver, 1779)

We, lucky as we are, can turn our minds to betterment and hope from lessons learned. Muslims still recite the same evil lines from 1400 years ago, graceless, vile, and murderous. We are blessed in our possible freedoms.