Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Slavery In Islam And The West: The Double Standards Of The Intellectual Elites (Part 1)


In 2006, Tony Blair expressed his “deep sorrow” over Britain's role in the slave trade. In an article for the New Nation newspaper, the then-prime minister said it had been a “profoundly shameful” affair in Britain's history.

But Blair's words angered some African groups, such as the Pan African Reparation Coalition – because he had not been fawning enough in his apology. “An apology is just the start – words mean nothing,” said a spokeswoman.

There are a number of double standards and misplaced priorities in this scenario. Is it really right that Britain – and the West in general – should be singled out for the slave trade? And should it be necessary for Blair, or anyone else, to apologise for it at all?

The fact the mainstream media and groups such as the Pan African Reparation Coalition repeatedly ignore is that there was another slave trade which was just as shameful a blot on the history of the human race – the Islamic slave trade. Not only is this never mentioned by any reparations groups or Western courses on slavery, but the Islamic world has never been subjected to any worldwide condemnation or shame because of it.

This two-part essay is intended to redress the balance and provide the corrective to the current politically correct malaise, by examining and comparing the West and the Islamic world and their roles in the slave trade. In doing so, I hope to call attention to the neglected victims of a slave trade that no one condemns, as well as to emphasise that the West no longer has anything to be ashamed of, and has much to be proud of.


We certainly should not glorify slavery, and nor should we minimise or celebrate the role of Western countries such as Britain in participating in it. Slavery is an unethical, inhuman, degrading practice. But the West has already paid its penance for its past crimes – and it did so by being the first to push for abolition of slavery.

The roots of abolition go back to the ancient Greeks, who developed the conception of the equality and unity of man, a common brotherhood that bound all human beings regardless of race or creed. Plato put forward the argument that one of mankind's biggest mistakes was to “divide humanity into two”, treating the Greeks as a separate class while “[a]ll other nations, although their number is unknown and they do not intermingle or share any common language, are called by the single term 'barbarian', and because of this one term it is supposed that they constitute a single class.” Aristotle saw mankind as one race, distinguished from other creatures by the power of reason. Cicero, who introduced Greek philosophy to the Romans, wrote:

“That justice is based on nature will be evident, if you fully realise man's fellowship and unity with his fellow men. No two things are so closely alike as all of us are to each other...Hence, however man is to be defined, one definition is true of all men – proof enough that there is no difference between the species, for if there were, a single definition would not cover all its members...There is indeed no one of any race who, given a guide, cannot make his way to virtue.”

There was even direct criticism of slavery during the era of the ancient Greeks. Alcidamas, the fourth-century rhetorician and Sophist, condemned the practice: “The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave.” And although Aristotle is known to have said that some men are by nature slaves, he also recommended that “it is better to hold out freedom as a reward for all slaves”.

Such views continued to be held in the West long after the Greeks, including among Christians, who absorbed Greek and Stoic ethics into their theology. Although it condones and never condemns slavery, the Bible also affirms the oneness of man before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) This attitude caused Christians to question the morality of slavery even as far back as the so-called Dark Ages. St. Isidore of Seville declared that “God has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the freedman.” In 649, Clovis II, king of the Franks, married a slave, who later began a campaign to halt slavery. The Catholic Church now honours her as St. Bathilda. And in the sixteenth century, a Spanish missionary and bishop named Bartolomé de Las Casas was instrumental in enacting a law prohibiting enslavement of the Indians.

These aren't simply the actions and assumptions of a few; they are part of the grand universalist tradition of the West, and have formed our culture, part of who we are as Brits, or Americans, or Europeans. In time, they would form the basis for the abolition of the slave trade.

The pioneering abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson were British. They were supported in their efforts by influential writers such as William Cowper and Laurence Sterne. In America, there was William Lloyd Garrison, and even Abraham Lincoln, both of whom based their opposition to slavery on Biblical principles. Slavery was pronounced to be against the law in Scotland in 1776. English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham called the British colonies where slavery flourished “a disgrace and an outrage on humanity.”

The eighteenth century was the high tide of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but it also gave rise to the principles of freedom, equality and human rights, which were themselves derived from the ancient Greeks and found primarily in the West. Truly one of the greatest things about Western civilisation is its ability to engage in self-criticism: to subject even its most cherished beliefs and institutions to critical analysis and change. It was this willingness for self-criticism that led to the abolition of slavery, not just in the West, but throughout the world.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon...


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