Islam and the politics of slavery in American academia

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Rabi' al-Awwal 02, 1420 1999-06-16


by Yusuf Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1420)

A quarter of a century ago, Alex Haley’s autobiographical oral history Roots sparked controversy among historians because Haley claimed that his African ancestors kidnapped into American slavery were Muslims. Reviewing Haley’s work, American historian James Michener wrote, ‘To have Kunte Kinte, or one of his fellows, praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary developments rather than a true reflection of the past,’ adding that ‘the most relentless collectors of slaves were always the Arabs.’ This latter assertion has become the standard reaction to any mention of Islam as part of African American history, or to any expression of solidarity between peoples of African descent and Arabs or Muslims. The origins, context, and continuing political repercussions of this polemic are worth exploring.

At around the same time, an alternative ‘roots’ movement was also emerging, claiming ancient Egypt as the foundation of African civilization and labelling Islam as a ‘slave religion’. This school of thought is typified by Chancellor Williams, in whose racial interpretation of history, hordes of ‘White Arabs’ invaded Africa and eventually managed to convert African kings with wealth, seduce Black women as concubines, and, finally, enslave African warriors by the sword. But this reductionist interpretation of history is a self-telling alteration to the myths that Afrocentrist academics rail against. White American academics had a long history of depicting Africans as a homogeneous, Black mass with no religion, culture or language, while Afrocentrists depict Africans as homogeneous Black heirs to a ‘pure’ Egyptian civilization. This simplistic discourse turns White supremacist rationalizations of racial oppression on their head, but does not escape their racist reductionism. It also serves political ends.

William’s hypothesis was challenged by a number of Black American scholars and activists, many of whom were affiliated with the Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI, while also adhering to a racialist interpretation of history, claimed that Williams’ work was flawed because he used ‘White sources.’ The NOI used Islam as a way to invite ‘so-called Negroes’ to abandon Christianity as the White man’s slave religion, and, as Elijah Muhammad put it, ‘accept your god, Allah, now and return to His (and your original) religion, Islam.’ But the NOI rarely used Islamic teachings, relying instead on a combination of Old Testament tales of ‘chosen people’ and New Testament Armageddon stories. Islam was largely a rhetorical proxy used for its emotional impact, irking America’s dominant Christian culture.

These connections between Africans, Arabs, Islam, and slavery had been raised prior to the polemic between Haley, Michener, Williams, and the NOI, although they received little attention at the time. A decade earlier, Malcolm X had responded to questions about Arab and African roles in slavery. In one of his last speeches, he remarked: ‘Africans sold slaves; we sold each other. Arabs sold slaves. The White man bought the slaves. The Africans took captives in warfare, and the Europeans did that old divide-and-conquer act, and would sell guns to one side; and the guns that the one side had, enabled them to easily defeat the other side. And in that particular cultural thought-pattern, the captive was a slave, he was a prize of war, and he was turned over to the Europeans. I doubt that any of them over there really knew what they were sending us into, or that we knew what we were coming into. But it was a very vicious thing; you and I are the victims of it. Everybody feels guilty about it, you can believe it. The Arabs are guilty; Europeans are guilty; the Africans feel guilty; everybody feels guilty.’ Malcolm’s position was that the impact of the Arab slave trade was secondary to the European trade, and that it was the White West that underdeveloped Africa.

In fact, the Euro-American practice of slavery was unparalleled in human history. While African and Arab forms of slavery are hardly to be praised, they were tempered in many ways that made then very different from the connotations of the modern term ‘slavery.’ In particular, African and Arab forms of slavery lacked two key elements that made plantation slavery in the Americas the cruelest form of slavery in history. In Africa and the Mideast, slaves were largely indentured servants or quasi-mercenary soldiers who had many rights of citizens and whose terms were limited, while western slaves were destined to a life of hard labor and often worked to death. And, also in sharp contrast to African and Mideastern practice, Euro-American slaves were reduced to less-than-human status by the prolonged and systematic use of racial hatred, where White meant master and Black meant slave. Many Americans, Black and White alike, are yet to recover from this poisonous mindset.

Indeed, the term ‘slave trade’ itself is inadequate for the the massive destruction that was Euro-American slavery. It was more like a Diaspora of violence, leaving 10-15 million survivors. The human cost of this Diaspora was upwards of 50 million people lost between 1750 and 1900 alone, which corresponds with the beginnings and growth of modern Western civilization. During these years of European exploitation, there was virtually no population increase in Africa.

The polemic over Arabs, Muslims, Africans, and slavery also has a decidedly political aspect, which can be traced to a decision taken by politicized scholars in the 1960s to discredit Arabs and Islam in the eyes of Africans and African Americans. There are two reasons for this: first, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other African American civil rights and liberation groups, expressed increasing solidarity with Palestinians as fellow colonized and oppressed peoples. Second, Arabs and Africans increasingly came together through the United Nations, succeeding in forming a number of political and economic alliances.

Solidarity with Palestinians and Arabs caused SNCC to lose much of what remained of its already dwindling White and Jewish American support. When SNCC members published a fact sheet about Zionism and Israeli colonization of Palestine in 1967, it caused a furore; major American newspapers ran stories decrying SNCC’s ‘anti-Semitism’, and it was subjected to prolonged public attack by Jewish groups. The American Jewish Congress called the move ‘shocking and vicious anti-Semitism,’ a charge that many African Americans have been unable to live down.

Meanwhile, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a well-funded and powerful zionist lobby in Washington, also monitored Black supporters of Palestinians. The 1984 edition of its College Guide, which monitored support for Palestinians on college campuses, warned pro-Israel activists to beware of ‘anti-Israel speakers’ such as Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC), then leader of the All- African Peoples Revolutionary Party. An earlier edition of the Guide suggested that the ‘pro-Israel community is faced with the difficult task of trying to match the visibility, strength and influence of the campus campaign to discredit Israel.’

In 1975 the UN adopted a resolution describing zionism was a form of racial discrimination. This resolution was largely the work of the International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD), which included an impressively diverse range scholars and activists, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Arabs, Africans, and Euro-Americans. In 1977, EAFORD published a collection of essays, Zionism and Racism. Its journal Without Prejudice also focused on the relationships between apartheid and zionism, especially in a notable series of articles by Black South African intellectual Alfred Moleah. Similarly, a number of other studies brought together Arabs, Muslims and Africans in research on slavery and colonization in the Middle East and Africa.

In 1976, a UN Special Committee Against Apartheid unanimously adopted a report on the relations between Israel and South Africa, which noted increasing efforts by both regimes to sabotage relations between Arab and African nations. It stated that, ‘Weakened by the advances of the liberation struggle and forced into increasing isolation by growing Arab-African solidarity and world condemnation of their racist polices, the two regimes have resorted to an ever closer collaboration aimed at driving a wedge between the African countries and between them and the Arab countries and at linking southern Africa and the Middle East as common strategic concerns of the Western Powers.’

Arab-American scholars subsequently uncovered part of this plan for ‘driving a wedge’ between Arabs and Africans, and the role of American academic institutions in achieving it. They found that increasing academic attention to the Arab role in African slavery began in the mid-1970s, when the Ford Foundation funded a series of seminars at Princeton University. The choice of subject matter for the seminars provided strong evidence that political preferences resulted in the formulation and support of scholarly agendas. One of the seminars dealt with ‘slavery and related institutions in Africa.’ The grant proposal for the Princeton seminars emphasized a supposed African fear and resentment of Arabs and Muslims. Invited Israeli scholars tried to persuade Black nationalist leaders not to rely on Arab nations, claiming that the Arab slave traders depopulated African countries. By convoluting slavery, Arabs, and Islam, the seminars were designed to destroy political relations between Africans, Arabs, and Muslims. To assure the achievement of this aim, Princeton invited no Arab or Muslim scholars, unlike EAFORD.

The decision to omit Arab and Muslim voices was clearly political. A number of Arab and Muslim historians had published research in the mid-1970s that could have contributed to the seminars at Princeton. Using European, Arabic and African sources, Ghada Talhami had evaluated the Arab role in African slavery and concluded that there was ‘a deliberate association of Islam, Arabs, and slavery, (particularly in East Africa) by defenders of the colonial regime and its historians’ and that in post-colonial scholarly circles, this politicized discourse ‘is almost on its way out.’ But not quite. EAFORD’s work, along with Arab-Muslim scholarship, revealed the Princeton conference had revived a self-serving British colonial and missionary polemic.

The two most often cited cases of Arab involvement in African slavery were unusual moments in an otherwise mutually productive interaction. Both were in the 19th century. One involved Muhammad Ali Pasha, a Westernizing despot who ruled Egypt in the first half of the 19th century. Just as the slave trade was being outlawed in Euro-American metropoles, Ali Pasha picked up the slack by engaging in slave expeditions to the southern Nile region, the Sudan. The other instance involved the Sultan of Oman in a similar scheme, this time to harvest spices on plantations he and his European partners ran off the coast of East Africa.

But these sad moments in Arab-Muslim-African history are not representative of the thousand-year contact between African and Arab cultures in the context of Islamic civilization. They are projected back in history, using selective and at times spurious evidence, to build a case for alleged centuries of Arab slavery, and for confusing them with the forms of slavery practiced by Europeans. This unfortunate connection seems to have gained a great deal of credence in recent years. For a more recent example, an emotionally charged and powerful comic book history of slavery, The Black Holocaust for Beginners, retells this myth with particular force. Combining the politicized myth with a favorite Western phantasm of Islam, this comic includes a drawing of a turbaned Arab man raping a Black woman while his veiled harem looks on. This unlikely image is presented as the sum total of centuries of Arab-Muslim-African co-existence.

Modern Western, supposedly ‘objective,’ scholarship on Africa and Islam redefined and reduced the legacy of a long and mutually prosperous relationship between Arabs, Muslims, and Africans by harping on the nineteenth-century Arab involvement in the slave trade, which itself resulted from of Western colonization. This emphasis, repeated incessantly, distorts the Islamic impact on and contribution to Africa. It was designed to obscure the memory of many centuries of peaceful Muslim trade relations, migrations, and intermarriages in Africa - not to mention the development of a vibrant local African Islamic civilization.

[Professor Yusuf Progler teaches Social Studies at the City University of New York.]

Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999

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