Foreign Affairs

Islamic Slavery in Sudan

The International Criminal Court this week issued warrants for the arrest of Ahmed Haroun, the minister for humanitarian affairs of Sudan, and Ali Kosheib, a leader of that country’s notorious janjaweed militia. The Sudanese government has refused to hand over the two for prosecution. Charges include murder, rape, torture and “imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty.” Severe deprivation of liberty – that is, slavery. Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly observed this week that in Sudan, “slavery, sanctioned by religious zealots, ravaged the southern parts of the country and much of the west as well.”

Muslim slavers in the Sudan primarily enslave non-Muslims. According to the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan (CASMAS), a human rights and abolitionist movement, “The current Khartoum government wants to bring the non-Muslim Black South in line with Sharia law, laid down and interpreted by conservative Muslim clergy. The Black animist and Christian South remembers many years of slave raids by Arabs from the north and east and resists Muslim religious rule and the perceived economic, cultural, and religious expansion behind it.”

The BBC reported in March 2007 that slave raids “were a common feature of Sudan’s 21-year north-south war, which ended in 2005….According to a study by the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute, some 11,000 young boys and girls were seized and taken across the internal border — many to the states of South Darfur and West Kordofan….Most were forcibly converted to Islam, given Muslim names and told not to speak their mother tongue.” One Sudanese Christian slave, James Pareng Alier, was kidnapped and enslaved when he was twelve years old. Religion was a major element of his ordeal: “I was forced to learn the Koran and re-baptised Ahmed. They told me that Christianity was a bad religion. After a time we were given military training and they told us we would be sent to fight.” Alier doesn’t know his family’s whereabouts. While non-Muslims are enslaved and often forcibly converted to Islam, their conversion does not lead to their freedom. Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner Boubacar Messaoud explains: “It’s like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves.”

Besides being practiced more or less openly today in Sudan and Mauritania, there is evidence that slavery still continues beneath the surface in other majority-Muslim countries also — notably Saudi Arabia, which only abolished slavery in 1962, Yemen and Oman, both of which ended legal slavery in 1970, and Niger, which didn’t abolish slavery until 2004. In Niger, the ban is widely ignored, and as many as one million people remain in bondage. Slaves are bred, often raped, and generally treated like animals.

Some of the evidence that Islamic slavery still goes on consists of a spate of slavery cases involving Muslims in America. A Saudi named Homaidan Al-Turki was sentenced in September 2006 to 27 years to life in prison, for keeping a woman as a slave in his Colorado home. For his part, Al-Turki claimed that he was a victim of anti-Muslim bias. He told the judge: “Your honor, I am not here to apologize, for I cannot apologize for things I did not do and for crimes I did not commit. The state has criminalized these basic Muslim behaviors. Attacking traditional Muslim behaviors was the focal point of the prosecution.” The following month, an Egyptian couple in Southern California received a fine and prison terms, to be followed by deportation, after pleading guilty to holding a ten-year-old girl as a slave. In January 2007, an attaché of the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington was charged with keeping three Christian domestic workers from India in slave-like conditions in his Virginia home.

All this indicates that the problem of Islamic slavery isn’t restricted to recent events in the Sudan; it is much larger and more deeply rooted. Human rights organizations and the United Nations, if their priorities were straight, would take note and move decisively against those who still hold human beings in bondage, or aid or tolerate others doing so. But that would involve a great deal more than issuing arrest warrants for two Sudanese thugs.

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