Every day across the African continent, black men, women, and children are captured, bought, and sold into slavery with the Western world paying scant attention. Human rights groups have marched and battled against abuses noticeably less cruel and evil than human bondage, yet no major organization has attempted to free today’s black slaves, much less taken meaningful steps to raise awareness about their plight.
For instance, in Mauritania, although slavery has been legally banned five times since 1961, it nevertheless persists with tens of thousands of blacks continuing to be held in bondage. While it is forbidden in the Qur’an for Muslims to enslave fellow Muslims, in Mauritania, racism trumps religious doctrine — as it did in the West — as Arab and Berber Muslims enslave African Muslims.
Twenty-five years ago, Mohamed Athié, a political refugee from Mauritania, and I broke the story of a modern-day black slave trade in The New York Times. Our nascent American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) mobilized the public, and piqued media interest. In Sudan, tens of thousands of African women and children from mostly Christian villages were being enslaved during the jihad raids of the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Americans heard stories of abduction, rape, beatings, forced conversions, and genital mutilation. Between 1995 and 2011, Christian Solidarity International, a grassroots human rights group, liberated more than 100,000 of these slaves in European- and American-funded slave buy-backs.
President George W. Bush, moved by the plight of the slaves, helped the black south split off and eventually form South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, in 2011. It was estimated then that as many as 35,000 blacks remained enslaved in the north. Nobody knows how many are there today.
The AASG, which led abolitionist campaigns from 1995 to 2005, ceased its activist work when South Sudan won its freedom. But today, the enslavement of black Africans has spread as a result of the growth of violent Islamist movements and anti-black racism. The need for human rights groups’ intervention and efforts has never been greater.
Americans first heard about Islamist slave raids in Nigeria when Michelle Obama made it a cause célèbre with her “#BringBackOurGirls” hashtag, but interest quickly faded, and Boko Haram continued to kidnap hundreds of Christian girls into jihad slavery. So cruel are the events of their captivity that some girls prefer death as suicide bombers to the life of a slave. Today, Fulani Muslim herdsmen raid Christian villages, massacring their inhabitants. President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, has done relatively little to stop the assaults, even in the face of demands for action from the White House.
In Algeria, sub-Saharan Africans fleeing violence and poverty are enslaved by Algerian Arabs as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. According to the Global Slavery Index (GSI), 106,000 black Africans are estimated to be enslaved in Algeria. Migrant women and children of both sexes risk being forced into sexual slavery, while men perform unskilled labor.
Black Africans hoping for a better life in Europe also travel to Libya, where they are caught and trafficked across the Mediterranean, often to Italy. The auction of a black man for $400 was filmed by CNN. The GSI estimates as many as 48,000 migrants are enslaved in Libya, with survivors reporting torture and sexual slavery.
Two forces hinder efforts toward freeing these slaves. First, Louis Farrakhan, who wields outsize influence in America’s black community, focuses his efforts on conversion of blacks to Islam. Thus the fact that Arab Muslims are enslaving Christian and Muslim blacks is more than inconvenient for this goal and his influence, and is easier ignored. In the 1990s, Farrakhan dismissed reports of modern-day black slavery as a “Jewish conspiracy,” intimidated African Americans from acting, and ignored evidence provided in a Pulitzer Prize-nominated news investigation that was conducted at his behest.
The second problem stems from Western rights organizations’ obsession with perceived Western crimes, which logically requires them to ignore or marginalize victims of non-Western abuses. Compare the West’s response to the crime of apartheid in South Africa and its lack of concern to end the Arab trade in African slaves. The human rights establishment seems to be moved less by human suffering than by its need to be seen as “the good whites.” Such narcissism abandons those most in need of Western concern.
These remain the challenges to those whose hearts respond to the cries of humans in bondage. They were overcome 20 years ago with the liberation of Sudan’s slaves. They can be again. Human bondage is a moral outrage. All decent people should see its victims as their own brothers, sisters, and children, and act to rescue them. It is time for human rights groups to focus on freeing Africa’s slaves.