The Highest and Best Use of Keith Ellison

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Now that Keith Ellison, our first Muslim Congressman, has lost out to Thomas Perez for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee – though being given the specially-created sop of “Deputy Chair” – he may wish to strike out on his own, for clearly he has a lot of energy, and ambition, and Wants To Make A Difference.

It would be a pity if Ellison’s gifts as a publicist, agitator, and Washington operator were not to be used for the greater good. For Keith Ellison is uniquely qualified to fill one particular role: that is, to help black Africans obtain some modicum of economic justice from Muslim Arabs, given the havoc wreaked by the Arab slavers in black Africa over thirteen centuries. He needs to convince the deep-pocketed Arabs of the Gulf that they have more to lose by refusing to offer reparations for that “other slave trade,” while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar will hardly miss a few tens of billions of dollars of the hundreds of billions they take in year after year.

That we all need to be reminded of that Arab slave trade in Africa was brought home to me by Henry Louis Gates, who has been on NPR discussing his new documentary series on black Africa. It’s not what he said, but what he didn’t say, that was so telling. He several times mentioned the Atlantic Slave Trade, but he said nothing about the Muslim Arab slavers in Africa. Not even Henry Louis Gates, it seems, is fully cognizant of how widespread and damaging that Arab slave trade was to black Africa. The world needs to be told more about that trade, so much more extensive, in time and space and number of victims, than the Transatlantic Slave Trade that receives almost all of the world’s attention. Keith Ellison, an Afro-American and a Muslim, is ideally situated to remind us of this trade, and to demand justice for black Africans.

Over 28 Million Africans have been enslaved in the Muslim world during the past 14 centuries. While much has been written concerning the Transatlantic slave trade, surprisingly little attention has been given to the Islamic slave trade across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That Arab slave trade in East and Central Africa began in the late 7th century. We know this because there are records of the earliest slave revolts by Africans in what is present-day southern Iraq, dating from 689-90 and 694, both quickly supressed. The Zanj revolt of 869-883 – “Zanj” being the word the Arabs used to describe black Africans – in southern Iraq was a much bigger rebellion. It lasted fourteen years, and took a great effort by the Arabs to put down. The slaves who revolted had been used in backbreaking work as agricultural labor, forced to remove nitrous topsoil to create arable land, and treated brutally by their Arab masters. Ellison ought to be made aware of the Zanj Rebellion, and what conditions prompted it, and what methods were used to suppress the revolt by the black slaves.

The Arab trade in African slaves began much earlier than the Atlantic trade – the 7th rather than the 15th century — and it also lasted longer. There were no Arab abolitionists, no Muslim William Wilberforces. Western pressure ended Arab slavery. It was the Royal Navy that patrolled the coasts of Arabia and intercepted dhows carrying slaves. Slavery continued to exist, however, in several Muslim Arab countries well into the 20th century. Though officially banned in Mauritania in 1961 and again in 1981, it still continues to this day, with half a million black slaves held by Arabs. In Saudi Arabia, as recently as the 1950s, 500,000 black Africans, or 20% of Saudi Arabia’s population, were held as slaves. It was only in 1962 that slavery was officially abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen – and only under terrific Western pressure. There are those who claim that there are still black Africans held in “slave-like conditions,” even if slavery no longer exists officially, in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and some of the sheikdoms of the Gulf.

In the Sudan, northern Arabs continued to enslave southern blacks especially during the Second Sudanese Civil War, at least until 2005, with as many as 200,000 black Africans taken into slavery.

The Muslim Arabs held slaves for more than 1300 years, while the Atlantic slave trade lasted for only four centuries. We have estimates from historians as to the number of blacks who were seized by Arab slavers in Africa, and how many of them – women, children, and castrated boys – made it alive, during those 1300 years, to the Islamic slave markets. It turns out that about 28 million black Africans — a consensus estimate — were brought, either walked across the Sahara in coffles to the slave markets of North Africa and Egypt, or by dhow across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to the slave markets of Arabia and the Gulf. The Arab slave trade was particularly gruesome, for much of it involved castrating black boys in the bush, with the most primitive of implements, in order to supply eunuchs for the Muslim harems. Many of the boys died during the surgery; many others died in the days afterwards from infections, or during the long trek by land or sea to the Islamic slave markets. The historian Jan Hogedoorn, in his study of what he called The Hideous Trade, estimated the mortality rate for those castrated slaves as high as 80-90%, meaning only 10-20% of those African boys originally seized arrived alive at the slave markets. While the consensus estimate of 28 million black Africans who made it to the Islamic slave markets at first sounds like a lot, over 1300 years (650-1950 A.D.) this amounts to an average of a little more than 20,000 black slaves brought annually from Central and East Africa all the way to those slave markets, which is perfectly plausible.

Historians have extrapolated from these figures the total number of blacks who must have been originally seized. Given the estimated 80-90% mortality rate for the castrated boys, who made up one-third of the total Arab slave trade, even if we were to assume a much lower mortality rate for the women and children — say 20%-30% — who made up 2/3 of that slave trade, the numbers of blacks seized in the bush must have been many times the 28 million who survived to make it to Arab markets. Some estimates run as high as 140 million, consisting of the 28 million believed to have survived the journey added to another 112 million who did not. (This seems too high to me, for it assumes an 80% mortality rate not just for the castrated boys, but for the women and children). We might, for the purposes of rough calculation, say that 27 (rather than 28) million slaves made it to market, one-third of whom, or 9 million, would have been castrated boys, and 18 million women and children. If the castrated boys had a mortality rate of 10%, it would take 90 million boys seized in the bush to yield 9 million arriving, over 1300 years, at the slave markets. Even if we were to take the lower mortality rate of 80%, that would still give a total of 45 million boys seized in the bush. As for women and children, if 18 million ended up in the Islamic markets, a 20% mortality rate meant that the slavers started out with about 23 million women and children. Assuming, then, the lowest mortality rates for both the castrated boys (80%), and the women and children (20%), we arrive at a figure of 68 million Africans originally seized by Arab slavers.

Now compare this with the Atlantic Slave Trade. Between 1525 and 1866, that is the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Of those, 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, to disembark in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. In the Atlantic Slave Trade, no boys were castrated – the slaves were intended for agricultural use – and the mortality rate, for the Middle Passage (the trip across the Atlantic) was a mere 10-15%. Nor did slaves in the Atlantic slave trade have to suffer a long trek across the Sahara, or from Central Africa to the Indian Ocean, as did those in the Arab slave trade. This means that the Muslim Arab slave trade involved almost seven times as many Africans — 68 million instead of 12.5 million — as did the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The Arab slave trade was all about sex, the Atlantic Slave Trade all about agriculture. Men made up 2/3 of those taken by the European slavers, for use as agricultural labor. Women and children made up 2/3 of those taken by the Arab slavers, for use as concubines, with the remaining 1/3 being the castrated boys who, as eunuchs, guarded the harems. The Arab slavers began using the women and girls as sex slaves as soon as they had been captured. The famous Swiss explorer Johann Burkhardt, who travelled in Nubia and Egypt, reported in 1814 about what he saw: “I frequently witnessed scenes of the most shameless indecency, which the traders, who were the principal actors, only laughed at. I may venture to state, that very few female slaves who have passed their tenth year, reach Egypt or Arabia in a state of virginity.” In other words, girls as young as ten were routinely raped by the Arab slavers. Those familiar with the example of little Aisha, Muhammad’s youngest and last wife,, with whom he had sexual intercourse when she was nine, will not be surprised at how the slavers treated girls even before “their tenth year.” Muhammad remains, after all, the Model of Conduct (“uswa hasana”).

David Livingstone, the celebrated missionary and explorer who was in East Africa a half-century after Burkhardt, described the barbarity of the Arab slavers in the African Great Lakes region:

To overdraw its evils is a simple impossibility … We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. [Onlookers] said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any longer. We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead … We came upon a man dead from starvation … The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be broken heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.

All of this abridged history lesson is by way of background. For clearly there is a mission here, for someone who bestrides the two worlds – of Islam and black Africa – to undertake. That someone is Keith Ellison.

If Keith Ellison were to start a campaign to obtain justice for black Africans from Muslim Arabs, he might begin by using the many media outlets available to him to educate the American public about this Arab slave trade in Africans. He could deliver heartfelt speeches in Congress, with the kinds of facts and figures offered here, being sure to keep it simple, startling his audiences with a one-sentence summary that “this Arab slave trade began earlier, ended later, and claimed tens of millions more victims” than the Atlantic Slave Trade. He could mention the castrated boys, and the phenomenal level of mortality, because of the primitive operations, and the long treks to the slave markets. He could bring the matter to the attention of the Congressional Black Caucus, and then to Congress as a whole. He could interest 60 Minutes in doing a segment on “The Other Slave Trade.” He could appear with Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Rose, to reach tens of millions, about the need for the Muslim Arabs to recognize their responsibility to Black Africa, and to make substantial reparations to black Africans, especially those in East and Central Africa, where the Arab traders seized almost all of their slaves. He could enlist George and Amal Clooney – she with her human-rights background, and he Hollywood’s foremost mediagenic liberal – to take up the cause. For the rich Arab states of the Gulf, that is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Dubai and Qatar, such reparations, even if in the tens of billions, would be only a line-item hiccup, given the amounts they take in annually, but for the African recipients, those sums could be, as so many now like to say, “transformative.” No one can accuse Ellison of being “islamophobic.” His campaign will help to educate African-Americans as to the treatment of black Africans by Muslim Arabs, causing a stir, and raising resentments that, Ellison can tell the rich Arabs with whom he is negotiating, can only subside – possibly — when the Arabs demonstrate, through the payment of reparations to the states from where most of the slaves were seized, their deep and genuine regret over their slave trade and the damage it did to black Africa.

Ellison would be the perfect middleman for this transaction, between Muslim Arabs and black Africans, for he is welcome in both camps. As America’s first Muslim congressman, he has been made much of in Al Jazeera. He has met with leading (and unsavory) clerics in Saudi Arabia. He has addressed the Islamic Society of North America, which has ties to Hamas, has accepted $13,350 to make the hajj to Mecca from the Muslim-American Society, a Muslim Brotherhood organization, and accepted aid from CAIR for his first political campaign. All of that has given him status and power within the Islamic world, and he is similarly situated, as an Afro-American and a Sanders-camp “progressive,” as a political force to be reckoned with (after all, he barely missed out on becoming chairman of the D.N.C.) in the United States. He can exploit that power and status in order to obtain justice for black Africans. Until now he has not paid the slightest attention to the persistence of African enslavement in Arab lands, no doubt wishing to protect the image of Muslim Arabs. Nor has he ever discussed the long history of the Arab slave trade. It’s time for him to think less about Islam’s image, or that of the Arabs, and more about the sufferings of black Africans. He needs to give the world a history lesson that, coming from him, can’t be dismissed as bigotry or Islamophobia. And of course – I hope Ellison will have a chance to read this bit of friendly advice – he should be compensated handsomely, given a fixed percentage of what he manages to exact as reparations from the Arabs. It would be he, after all, who will have brought this matter so spectacularly to the world’s attention (Jihad Watch can remain in the wings) and by doing so put pressure on the rich Arabs to make amends. And it is Keith Ellison, with the help of historians of African slavery, who would decide from which present-day African countries the slaves must have been taken, and in what numbers, and what damage was done as a consequence both to those seized, and to those lands and peoples they left behind. And then, Ellison should be in charge of determining the size of the reparations and how they ought to be allocated.

The Muslim Arabs of the Gulf might at first refuse to pay any reparations. But the sums involved are so small, compared to what the Gulf Arabs take in annually (the Muslim Arab members of OPEC have received nearly $30 trillion in oil revenues since 1973 alone), and the damage that would be done, to the image of Muslim Arabs — and to Islam — potentially so great, that even if initially they might reject any notion of reparations, Keith Ellison could get them – he’s on their side, after all, he only wants what’s best for Islam, he can insist – to reconsider his entreaties. He could explain that he wants only to protect the image of Arabs and Islam. And he can explain, too, that the size and duration and unusual cruelty of that Arab slave trade, especially the mass castrations, are wreaking havoc with that image. Ellison’s committee of experts could attempt to calculate the damage done to East and Central Africa by the loss of more than 100 million people to Arab slavers. It would be wonderful to see Ellison, with the full support of the Black Caucus, and of Congressional Democrats, and for quite different reasons, even of the Congressional Republicans, sponsoring a Congressional resolution calling upon those Muslim Arabs whose ancestors were involved in any aspect of the trade in black African slaves to make “suitable reparations” especially if they “are in a position to do so” (i.e., the rich Gulf Arabs, not impoverished Egypt or Jordan) to the black African states of eastern and central Africa, the territories from which Arab traders seized almost all of their slaves.

Ellison would have given the Western public, on behalf of Black Africa, a useful History Lesson. He would also have exacted from the richest countries, per capita, in the world, the Arab Gulf states, that became, and remain, fabulously wealthy purely as a result of an accident of geology, significant sums for some of the poorest people on the planet. He would have helped attain a kind of rough economic justice from the deep-pocketed descendants of those who had been involved in the trade in black slaves, after centuries of inattention and continuing injustice to the African states affected.. And Keith Ellison would have found a way to exploit his Muslim identity on behalf of his African one. He won’t be turned away by the Arabs, but as not just a fellow Muslim, but the highest-ranking Muslim politician in the United States, he’ll find that he’ll be given a hearing in Riyadh, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar… And his argument to his fellow Muslims will be that now that the world has started to pay close attention to the history of the Arab slave trade in black Africa that particular genie can only be put back in the bottle, if at all, by the Arabs doing right by black Africa, by agreeing to these reparations. These payments would ideally be made not all at once but continue over many years, so as to avoid a sudden influx of vast wealth that would unhinge the recipients, and possibly encourage corruption. Furthermore, payment over a long period can help ensure that the African side keeps its part of the bargain, that is, ceases to disseminate information about the Arab slave trade, so that attention is again focused on the Atlantic Slave Trade. And during that time Keith Ellison could be the man in overall charge of the program, the one to oversee the transfer of sums from Arabs to black African states, to remind the Arabs that if they fail to come through with what they promised, they should expect to be hammered, without end, in the American and world media. He is the one who should make sure the monies received are not wasted in profligate projects but carefully husbanded, so as to have a lasting beneficial effect on the peoples and polities that receive them. Should some Muslim Arabs grumble about the money, Ellison can be the one to remind them of the importance, even the necessity, of getting the world’s attention off the subject of the Arab Muslim slave trade – it’s not good, he can truthfully and, as a fellow Muslim, sympathetically explain — for the image either of the Arabs or of Islam. And that appeal, coming from someone so wrapped up in his Muslim identity, will carry weight. He can also keep reminding the Arabs of the Gulf that the sums involved may be large for the recipients but, for the donors, are perfectly manageable.

And what’s in it for Keith Ellison? He will have a new undertaking, to replace his Congressional calling, as overseer of these reparations. He will become a hero in black Africa, not just in those states that will receive reparations from some of the richest people in the world but elsewhere, too, among those who, like the Christians in Nigeria, have long felt resentment at the forces of Islam. And many Muslims, especially non-Arabs, will be grateful to him for finding a way to rescue the image of Islam – unaware of his role in focusing widespread attention on the very subject, the Arab slave trade, that he then will attempt, as reparations are paid, to minimize. Given the size of the program he will be administering, and the sums to be transferred from Arabs to Africans, he will certainly have a right to compensation far above what he now earns as a Congressman. It will be much more rewarding, in every sense, for Ellison to take on this new role. Keith Ellison will find there’s no need for him to regret having lost out on the cat-herding that Thomas Perez has now signed up for, as the just-elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison should welcome this task of obtaining justice for black Africans from Muslim Arabs, and we should do nothing to discourage him from this, surely his highest and best use.

First published in Jihad Watch.


One Response

  1.  Ellison won't do it for the same reason that mainstream feminists won't call out Muslim culture for its mysogeny: Muslims qualify for victim status in relation to the Big Bad White West which oppressed them in the past and now oppresses Ellison's African-American constituency and self-flagellating feminists everywhere. The important thing is not complexity, justice, or hard truth, but comforting fantasy.    

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