The last time I heard this argument was in a Diversity session in which a white girl was trying to argue that slavery in the American colonies was just as bad as slavery in the Middle East. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard a white racist argue this point.
There are a couple of flaws already in the claim, for those with trained eyes. First, it’s never a good idea to say something is “as bad as.” It doesn’t help your argument–ever. For instance, in a book I read my sophomore year of college in my War in Iraq class, the author wrote, “Abu Gharib [the “scandal” that exposed US military illegally arresting Iraqi male citizens and raping, electrocuting, and torturing them, which is against international law–but hey, white people never have the sin of human rights violations] wasn’t as bad as what the Nazis did.” In comparing US forces’ illegal and violent activities to Nazi terrorism of Jewish lives, he wasn’t helping his point–meaning that in the ladder of evil come the Nazis and then close after the US forces. Yup. Not a solid argument in defense of US terrorism in the Middle East.
Secondly, and most importantly, this white girl didn’t understand the nature of slavery, and for me, it takes a lot of guts to speak on a subject you have no prior knowledge to. For instance, I don’t speak about calculus. Because I do not understand nor know nor have taken a class in college about calculus. Neither do I speak about Indian languages. Because I do not understand nor know or have taken a class in college about Indian languages. THEREFORE, it is outside of my range of knowledge–which is okay–and I should consult someone before making a judgment. (This is a very difficult task for white men and women who seem to think that they know the world and beyond, instead of staying in their lane.)
Now, in understanding why it’s illogical and ignorant to compare Middle Eastern “slavery” to the American form of slavery (that is, the slavery the Spanish, French and British sustained and maintained in the American–Northern and Southern–colonies for centuries), we must understand what being a slave was like in the Middle East.
Our first documentation of a slave and the Middle East actually comes from the Bible, in the book of Genesis, in the story of Joseph.
Joseph has a very interesting story in that he entered Egypt a slave, doing brutal work in the palace of the captain of the guard. But what’s particularly interesting about Joseph’s story is that he was thrown into prison, but then brought out to use his talent, and eventually he made it to the top command of Egypt–not because he was Egyptian (because he wasn’t), not because he was Hebrew (because he was), but because of his mere talents. He then went on to marry the chief Egyptian priest’s daughter, and the Egyptian people, we are told, obeyed Joseph the Hebrew.
Now, in the American slave system, slavery was based severely on race. Hence, ain’t no Black man or woman gonna be president until 500 years after being brought to the Americas. Because slavery was based on race, dehumanization was based on race. Unlike Joseph, Black people in the American colonies were brutally psychologically suppressed so as to keep their majority down (we will discuss this later in another Biblical story). In Joseph’s story, Joseph’s Hebrew family was welcomed kindly into Egypt to mingle with the Egyptians. Joseph, as mentioned, even married an Egyptian woman.
Thus, that dehumanizing emphasis of race was in American colonies, made up by the Spanish, French and British–but it wasn’t the Egyptian model of slavery. Thus, we see that even ancient Egyptians were aware of human dignity and individuality and talent, so that even a slave could rise to the top, marry one of their own, and bring his whole family, who were 70 people.
Think about that real quick. Today, in the United States, a Black man, a Hispanic man, an Arab man could not live a life as Joseph, starting at the bottom, intermarrying without losing his identity, and become the leader of a nation not his whole while bringing his WHOLE family to the land that is not their own. Immigrants in the United States today have to wait years upon years, even to never, to bring one family member. Think about that. And Egypt was in a famine, and still brought more people.
What’s even more, when Joseph wanted to bury his father, Jacob, in Canaan, Pharaoh allowed this. Pharaoh allowed the Other to have their Own Identity from His. This is so important and one of the psychological means of respect that we have lost in the United States: white men and women, generally, do not respect the cultures that people of color bring, that immigrants still love their homeland, that they still have alliances beyond this stretch of land and ocean that keeps them apart. For ancient Egyptians, that was okay. For modern-day “progressive” Americans, it isn’t. Think about that.
Moving forward in ancient Egyptian history, still attached to the story of Joseph and his multiplying family in Egypt, we come to the story of Moses (read Exodus for the story).
Now, it may that this story is very similar to the American colonial narrative in which we see the Egyptian government section off Hebrews–based on race–and suppress them.
Now, the only difference is that we see race as more fluid here as Pharaoh’s daughter takes the babe Moses, a Hebrew as she identifies, and raises Moses as her own. It’s also different in the fact that Hebrews were allowed to practice their religion in Egypt, whereas in the American colonies, slaves were forced to convert to Christianity.
This story is more important in what it shows in how God deals with oppressors, punishing both Pharaoh, his servants, and Egyptians who didn’t own slaves but didn’t do anything to stop the slavery of the Hebrews.
But the hallmark of it for our discussion today is that Hebrews, although sectioned off because of their strength as a society in Egypt, were still allowed to keep to their own in Egypt, unlike Black slavery in the American colonies in which Black slaves were meant to emulate their masters. Thus, Egyptian slavery was based on hard labor, not a psychological killing of one’s culture, language, and peoplehood.
Now, last thing from the Bible, after the era of Joseph and Moses, Jews who owned slaves had certain rules pertaining to how they treated their slaves (which was never based on race):
- If the slave fled, the Jewish master cannot run after him/her. Especially if a slave takes refuge with another Jew, that Jew cannot hand over that slave. (Deuteronomy 23:15).
- After seven years of slavery, the slave must be set free. (Exodus 21:2)
- A slave cannot be beaten by the master, or else the master will be punished. (Exodus 21:20)
- Slaves could participate in Jewish society, as it wasn’t based on race, or hold their own culture. (Exodus 12: 43-51)
These are all four conditions that didn’t exist in the American colonies. Slaves who fled to the North, when the United States became a country, were to be brought to their masters in the South again, to be punished.
Slaves in the United States were indefinitely slaves, never to be set free. For generations, Black people were slaves in the democratic country of the United States.
Slaves in the United States could be beaten up by their masters, could be killed by their masters, without reparations by the master. Families were separated, fathers killed, mothers raped all by white men without white women watching.
Slaves in the United States were meant to forget their culture and language, but couldn’t even sit in the same church as white people. They were meant to be in a limbo without their culture, and without full acceptance into white society and culture.
Now, tell me if slavery in the United States was even equal to slavery in the Middle East. What happened in the Americas by the Spanish, French and British was brutal and savage without code, without ethics, without humanity. Don’t try to convince me it was.
With Christianity on the scene in the Middle East, slavery became a sign of model virtue. Masters, like Philemon, were told to hold their slaves as their brothers.
Getting out of the mentality that being a slave was a bad thing in the Middle East (which is much unlike European colonies in the Americas), slaves were equated to God Himself who took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). Slaves were paid, were allowed to live with the master, were allowed to have families, were allowed to receive an education, were allowed to live.
One of the people in the Bible who were particularly fond of writing about slavery were Saint Paul, who wrote a particular letter to Philemon asking him to take his slave back, forgive him for his sins, and accept him as a brother as Christ would have wanted him to do (or else, Saint Paul writes, Philemon should take Saint Paul as his slave). Moreover, Saint Paul describes Jesus Christ as a slave, even himself as one.
One of his most famous verses for equality states: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free, neither man nor woman, for all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
This is important, for the shift in Roman and Greek culture from “slaves are slaves and masters are masters” needed to be transformed into the Jewish model of thinking. But this is not to say that Roman and Greek slavery was similar to that of European slavery! Roman and Greek slavery, in particular, had no racial boundaries, and still, one could not hold another human being as a slave forever. That was seen as inhumane.
But Christianity revolutionized slavery in the Middle East, making the slave not just a person who was submissive to another human being, but a human being with other talents, other ambitions, other needs. Thus, compare Saint Paul with Aristotle. Aristotle argues that slaves are born into the world as slaves, only meant to be slaves, but Saint Paul argues with the Greeks that slaves are much like their masters: humans who will live to die and be sent before the Judgement Seat.
Now, we’ll take a shift from Judaism and Christianity and their impact on the Middle East and move towards Islam. And actually studying Islam and slavery is very interesting because not only do we have the law, but we also have stories written down, accounts made for remembrance.
Again, like Judaism and Christianity, and similarly in pagan cultures: slavery was not based on race.
Again, like Judaism and Christianity, and similarly in pagan cultures: slaves had rights, were not meant to be slaves forever unless by choice, could have families, could have education, could rise to the top.
We know that slaves under Muslim masters could start families; we even know that female slaves, who gave birth to the master’s child, would then become a wife of the master, and her child would inherit just as the other children–much like Muhammad the Prophet’s Coptic wife, Mariam, who came as a slave but earned the position of wife after she gave birth to his only son, Ibrahim, who later died young.
The whole notion that Muslims brutalized slaves is incorrect–perhaps in certain places, but not all, and not according to the law. This is important, for although the law of slavery in Islam gave many human rights to slaves, particularly female slaves, there may have been uncommon brutal, illegal practices.
Now, the difference is that whereas brutal practices were illegal in Islamic dominions, but in European dominions in the Americas, brutality was the law–it was legal. Thus, you can only imagine what Black men and women suffered in the Americas when brutality is the law, when brutality was normalized to suppress.
And that’s what’s always crushing: brutality was normalized in the Americas by Europeans. Nowhere else in the world was it made okay to brutalize a human’s culture, body, language, family or essence. Nowhere in the world–except by Europeans.
So what were the main differences between how slaves were treated in the Middle East, and how slaves were treated under European masterdom?
- Slavery was based on race. Those who were brought to the Americas to be brutalized and work endlessly were Black. In the Middle East, there were many slaves from many conquests because it was seen as inhumane to kill them for the sins of their government, so they were given opportunities in the new kingdom. Slavery based on race, which was only a formula by Europeans, made dehumanization possible, made the popularization of the N-word easy, made it normal to separate and kill and punish and violate.
- Slavery was carried for generations in the Americas by the Europeans. This was naturally the next step after dehumanization–then, you can keep them for generations to come, suppressed, underneath your boot.
- Slavery was not brutal by law. Read Amitav Gnosh’s In An Antique Land. We have evidence of Middle Eastern slaves even traveling without their masters from Egypt to India to do the master’s trade, alone. This was not a system based on insecure people brutalizing cultures and peoples more advanced than theirs; this was not a system based on inhumanity. That’s important because once you can dehumanize a person, and then keep her family in the cycle of oppression for years, it’s only natural then to make a law to allow yourself continually and indefinitely to do so.
And so the white Constitution of the United States was born, while Black men, women and children labored in those fields with the Sun beating on them; it was written with the pens of the same white men who would return home, remove their peacoat and pick from their slaves on whom his pleasure shall fall.
Because once you dehumanize, stereotype, separate from her essence, strip her from her people, you’ve won the game for generations–even now.
I ask that before we begin to speak on the Middle East that we consider the brutality of Europe. I am not arguing that slavery is good, even in its forms in the Middle East–a slave is a slave. But what we should consider, always, is how uniquely brutal and savage Europe is in prescribing all other people as brutal and savage when their insecurities cannot even point to themselves.
Remember that what happened in the United States was a formation of European brutal insecurities emerging from their third-world with an eagerness to take the world on with such a force as to terrorize peoples from India to Angola to Mexico for generations to come–and only to come now, in the modern age, and say that those victims of their brutality are the real brutes.
Look in the mirror, Europe. Look in the mirror.