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Letter to BTS: Biram Dah Abeid’s anti-slavery activism is better than Beyond Slavery thinks

Mauritania’s anti-slavery movement is everything BTS implies it's not: ethnically diverse, grassroots, and historically aware. Those who suffer extreme oppression need the power academics can mobilise, not poorly-conceived criticism.

As a historian first and a human rights lawyer second, I am as alive as anyone to the historical ironies, the historical repetitions, the complexities, and sometimes even the cynicism of anti-slavery work. I agree with much of the writing published by Beyond Slavery and I appreciate the general impulse toward generating critical insights on the anti-trafficking movement. However, I work with people who grew up in slavery. I have met people who had to leave children behind when they escaped slavery. Those of us with the luxury to pursue academic study and to engage in debate must also recognise a responsibility to the needs and aspirations of the grassroots activists, a responsibility to those who have suffered extreme oppression and to those who are directly working with the extremely oppressed. We have a responsibility to engage in discussion that always takes as its touchstone the realities of extreme oppression and that responds to the call to help overcome this oppression. Otherwise, we are siding with the oppressors and the slave masters.

Too frequently the articles published by Beyond Slavery make sweeping criticisms that can serve to up-end the contemporary struggle against slavery. From my perspective as president and CEO of a non-profit fighting slavery, racism and gender oppression in Mauritania, three recent articles stand out as especially problematic (Quirk and Broome, Brewer Stewart, and McDougall). For each of these essays I’ve specific points. 1) For Quirk and Broome I would urge them to look before they leap; 2) for Brewer Stewart I would urge a deeper engagement with the anti-slavery activists he would like to advise; and 3) for McDougall I would suggest an honest reckoning with prior allegiances. While the contemporary anti-slavery movement can benefit from an academic-activist dialogue, academics should be wary of the condescending assumption that activists are somehow less well informed, naive, or ahistorical. Criticism of anti-slavery activists and activities can have immediate negative impact in the field.

Quirk and Broome

Joel Quirk and Andre Broome’s article, ‘The politics of numbers, the Global Slavery Index and the marketplace of activism”, strongly criticised the Global Slavery Index (GSI) published by the anti-slavery non-profit, Walk Free. However, their criticism aims to demolish an activist tool without providing a replacement in the form of more reliable quantitative data. Mauritania’s prominence in the GSI makes the anti-slavery struggle there especially vulnerable when the GSI itself is criticised. Walk Free’s GSI has consistently ranked Mauritania first in terms of proportion of its population enslaved. According to Walk Free’s explanation of its method, they relied primarily on estimates by the widely admired non-profit, SOS-esclaves, and the highly reputable BBC to arrive at an estimate of four percent of its population enslaved. From the perspective of those fighting for the rights of the severely oppressed, Walk Free’s four percent estimate is conservative. The recently freed slaves are also closely tied to the limitations and deprivations of the enslaved, and with that population included the estimated figure rises to 20 percent.

Rather than providing reliable quantitative data, Quirk and Broome argue that we should rely on “nuanced knowledge”. In an essay published by Middle East Eye, Quirk and Broome’s argument was re-heated and re-deployed directly against the human rights defenders in Mauritania. Ahmed Meiloud and Mokhtar Sidi Haiba, the authors of this article on Middle East Eye, reject the powerful if limited quantitative analysis of the GSI, and then proceed to a nuanced analysis that this expert easily recognises is based in poor logic and dubious facts. But not everyone, including the editors of Middle East Eye, is an expert. While Quirk and Broome do not intend to create license for those pretending to authoritative knowledge to distribute shoddy and unsubstantiated analysis, their criticism of the GSI encourages and gives cover for such shoddy analysis.

Quirk and Broome argue further that the GSI and similar tools imply “that the blame should be placed squarely on the national governments of the less ‘developed’ countries for the plight of their citizens’, and in turn casts more ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’ countries in the role of ‘rescuers’”. Similarly, Meiloud and Haiba in Middle East Eye criticise international NGOs for naive interference in Mauritania. Both these claims are objectionable. The anti-slavery struggle is authentic to Mauritania, and the cry for help from the oppressed Haratine and sub-Saharan African Mauritanians was loud and long before any international organisation began to help them. Only tireless work by Mauritanian human rights advocates has allowed their struggle against oppression to gain the attention of international human rights advocates. Even now very little international funding is dedicated to aiding Mauritanian ex-slaves and those escaping slavery. Finally, the activists are acutely aware of the international and global complicity in strengthening oppression in Mauritania. They know intimately that the World Bank, the IMF, the United States, and France all support the oppressive government, while giving only lip service to the cause of human rights.

Brewer Stewart

James Brewer Stewart’s article, ‘The new abolitionists and the problem of race’, simultaneously excoriates modern day abolitionists for being unaware of the history and legacies of slavery, and at the same time insists that slavery will always be a part of human societies. His message is confusing. Is slavery a part of the past that African Americans have a privileged right to lament? Or is it a perennial feature of all human societies? Stewart writes,

“… abolitionists … repeatedly tell us that they’re all about ‘ending slavery’ and even abolishing it ‘in our lifetime’. These types of pronouncements are not only unrealistic, since slavery has always been and will always be with us. They can also do profound violence to the past and its meaning for black Americans today, since they suggest that slavery can be easily and definitively expunged.”

With such statements Stewart seems to reject the very premise that there is a contemporary ethical duty to try to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery. What is the alternative? Complacent acceptance? A wholesale dismantling of human rights law? His logic overlooks the importance of the legal abolition of slavery and elides the fact that slavery today takes place in illegal situations. That is, slavery today—under the actual name ‘slavery’—is against national and international law. Even Mauritania, where slavery is prevalent, imposed a criminal penalty on slave owners in 2007, and in 2015 they added a criminal statute defining slavery as a crime against humanity. Nonetheless, slavery persists in Mauritania. Thus, today’s abolition movement is not about the legal abolition of slavery, it is about eradicating social practices that constitute and enable de facto slavery. Recognizing de facto slavery as slavery relies on precisely the type of historically and critically informed analysis that Stewart thinks activists lack.

Stewart demands that contemporary abolitionists develop a greater awareness of history, but this allegation of historical blindness is not applicable to all abolitionists. I, myself, am a historian. The link between imperialism and the modern carceral state is the subject of my first book, Exile to Paradise (Stanford University Press, 2000). Moreover, many human rights defenders with whom I work have university degrees in history. Even the grassroots IRA activists, who have little formal education, understand their struggle within the context of the history of tribalism, racism, postcolonialism, and globalisation.

McDougall

Also on Beyond Slavery, we have E. Ann McDougall’s article on slavery in Mauritania, ‘The politics of slavery, racism and democracy in Mauritania’. This comes perilously close to a defence of the Mauritanian racist and slaving status-quo—that is, the hegemonic control of government, army, and economy by the White Moor (Beydane) ethnic group that continues to practice slavery, and that systematically disenfranchises the sub-Saharan Mauritanitan population. McDougall is certainly an expert on Mauritania and provides the type of nuanced analysis that Quirk and Broome advocate. However, her expertise does not in itself place her allegiance with those fighting extreme oppression. The White Moor controlled government seeks to dissimulate its racist and slaving hegemonic control of the nation by tarring those seeking their freedom with the label racist. McDougall repeats the often heard White Moor allegation that Mauritanian abolitionists, particularly Biram Dah Abeid’s IRA, are racists. This is an error and it repeats the rhetorical move we encounter too frequently in politics in the United States and elsewhere: those who argue against racism are themselves condemned as racists. While certainly there is much to admire in White Moor culture, and McDougall’s affinity as a historian for the White Moors is somewhat understandable, their history regarding slavery and racism must be overcome rather than obfuscated.

My long comment on McDougall’s article can be found at the end of her piece in the comments section, for those interested in more detail. Here I have a broader point, that contributors to Beyond Slavery should write with greater awareness of how they can hurt organisations that are engaged on the grassroots level in very real struggles against contemporary slavery. It is very easy to launch critical attacks from a comfortable academic position, but consider first the implications of these attacks, and interrogate your own allegiances and motivations. Real people are suffering extreme subjugation. Are you working with them or against them?

About the author

Alice Bullard is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Initiative for the Resurgent Abolition Movement, known commonly as IRA - USA. Previously she was a tenured professor of History at Georgia Institute of Technology. She holds a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, and is licensed in the state of Maryland and in Washington DC. Her M.A. and Ph.D. were earned in European Intellectual and Post-Colonial history at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published widely on French colonial and post-colonial history, history of human rights, history of psychiatry and psycho-analysis, and environmental history. Her articles are linked on academia.edu.

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