In one of her first acts as Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a major policy on tackling slavery both in the UK and overseas. Mrs May has a longstanding commitment to tackling this issue. A year ago while Home Secretary she introduced a modern slavery bill that established the UK’s first ever Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The new initiative announced this week involves 1. Mrs May personally chairing a new cabinet committee to tackle slavery; 2. Creating a £33 million fund to tackle the enslavement overseas of an estimated 45 million people; 3. Careful monitoring of UK police forces to ensure that they are properly investigating reports of modern day slavery of which there are an estimated 10-13,000 victims in the UK.
Launching the initiative last Sunday Mrs May invoked the anti-slavery campaign two centuries ago led by Christian MP William Wilberforce saying: “This is the great human rights issue of our time and as Prime Minister I am determined that we will make it a national and international mission to rid our world of this barbaric evil. Just as it was Britain that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, so Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving the freedoms and values that have defined our country for generations.”
We warmly welcome this approach. However, we would respectfully point out to the Prime Minister that it is not just modern slavery that is a problem in the world. We are also seeing a resurgence in older forms of slavery. Much of the slavery Wilberforce fought against began with Arab traders capturing black Africans who were subsequently sold to white slave traders. Crucially it was shari’a that legitimised the enslavement of non-Muslims. The Sokoto Caliphate that encompassed a vast area of West Africa including what is now Northern Nigeria provided a high proportion of those slaves. It is precisely because shari’a permitted slavery that the last countries in the world to formally abolish slavery were predominantly Islamic ones: Morocco (1922), Afghanistan (1923), Iraq (1924), Iran (1928), Qatar (1952), Niger (1960), Saudi Arabia (1962), Yemen (1962), UAE (1964), Oman (1970) – culminating in Mauritania in 1981 – a country where slavery is still rampant with reports suggesting that between 10 and 20 percent of its population are enslaved.
However, in 2014 Boko Haram which controls parts of the old Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria announced that it had reintroduced slavery with its leader Abubakar Shekau announcing shortly after it had abducted 270 Christian school girls: “Allah instructed me to sell them…I will carry out his instructions… slavery is allowed in my religion and I shall capture people and make them slaves.” Boko Haram’s reintroduction of slavery was copied a few months later by Islamic State which has now enslaved thousands of Yazidi and Christian women in Syria and Iraq.
This is why it is very disappointing that the UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s strategic plan makes absolutely no reference at all to the resurrection of this older form of slavery, but wholly concentrates on more modern forms. Strikingly, it identifies Nigeria as one of the major countries of concern for modern slavery, but only focuses on the south east of the country. That may well be where most of those trafficked to the UK come from, but it ignores the most significant event since the abolition of slavery in Nigeria under British rule – its reintroduction two years ago by Boko Haram. Nor is shari’a based slavery an issue that affects only countries such as Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. In March this year a US based Qatari couple accused of slavery defended themselves in a Texas court by claiming that their actions were permitted by shari’a.
If the UK’s new Prime Minister is as serious as she appears to be about tackling slavery worldwide – then her government must also tackle the spread of shari’a based slavery just as William Wilberforce did.