On August 7, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania arrested Biram Dah Abeid, the founding head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), a human rights organization dedicated to eradicating slavery in the west African nation. Abeid described the police waking him in his home in the capital city of Nouakchott, and taking him into custody without charges.
Abeid and those petitioning for his release have good reason to suspect that his arrest – one of many over the past few years -- is related not only to his persistent anti-slavery activism and critique of Islamic texts, but to the fact that he is running for a seat in parliament in the legislative elections slated for September 1.
A brief history lesson about Mauritania and Islam:
“The problem is that Mauritania’s Arabs sincerely believe that blacks are born to be slaves,” wrote Samuel Cotton in his book Silent Terror: A Contemporary Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery. “They believe that a black man, woman or child’s place in life is to serve an Arab, and does not matter whether that black is a Christian, or a fellow Muslim.”
Another problem is that slave owners also believe they are doing nothing illegal. The Prophet Muhammad owned slaves and Islam’s legal code, Sharia law, justifies the practice. The eminent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, wrote that “…the institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law.”
Through his own research, Dah Obeid believes his country contains the highest number of chattel slaves in the world. He estimates 20 percent of Mauritania’s 3.3 million inhabitants are enslaved. Observers admit, however, that an exact number is difficult to determine. A largely desert country, Mauritania has many slave-owning Arab/Berber nomads whose human chattel often cannot be counted. But most estimates run between 300,000 to 500,000 black slaves.