Paul Trewhela writes on a notable blind spot of the BLM movement

Politicsweb,8 October 2020

Here is an issue for Black History Month, ahead of the presidential election in the United States next month.

A major problem in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from my Father (first published 1995, new edition 2004), is summed up in the title of the last book by the banned South African historian, editor and publisher, Ronald Segal: Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora.

Published in New York in 2001, between the first and second editions of Obama’s autobiography, Segal’s book reveals a history of East Africa which Obama’s book fails to disclose – a history of Islamic slave trade and slavery.

Dreams from my Father has a sub-title: A Story of Race and Inheritance. But while the issue of race is explored with sensitivity, intimacy and care – given the brief marriage of his white American mother and his black Kenyan father, whom he knew for only one month when he was aged ten – the issue of “inheritance” is largely negated by Obama’s almost complete avoidance of his own African Islamic family background.

This is not a subject which he wished to explore, despite the Islamic family inheritance of his Luo great-grandfather Obama, his grandfather Hussein Onyango (born about 1895) or his father Barack (meaning “the blessings of Allah” in Arabic, and in the Qur’an). Despite, also, major complexities in the relation of his alcohol-drinking, Harvard-educated father to the faith in which he was brought up. 

The result is that one of the most important global subjects of the modern world is missing in this autobiography, first published by the former President of the United States when he was 33, which together with his subsequent book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), has sold more than 3 million copies.

Instead of providing education and information for a US and world-wide reading public about a crucial reality in the history of black people internationally, this book by the most powerful black person in modern history conceals it.

In a total of roughly 450 pages in the 2008 paperback edition (issued in the year he became President), I find fewer than ten references to the words “Muslim” or “Islam”, despite the whole of Part Three, “Kenya” – the final third of his book – being situated with his late father’s family in Kenya.

In his Epilogue, seven pages from the end, he describes visiting the former slave-trading port of Mombasa with his half-sister Auma on the last weekend of this visit to Kenya, writing how “we visited Mombasa’s Old Town and climbed the worn stairs of Fort Jesus, first built by the Portuguese to consolidate trade routes along the Indian Ocean, later over-run by the swift Omani fleets, later still a beachhead for the British as they moved inland in search of ivory and gold…”. (p.436)

What is not explored here, or elsewhere, in the book is what Segal accurately and honestly calls “The Other Black Diaspora” – in this case, the East African slave trade, the Indian Ocean slave trade … or in Segals’ brave and bold title, Islam’s Black Slaves. Obama permits those “swift Omani fleets” to sail onward to their destinations, their human cargo unrecorded and concealed.

Yet it is not as if Obama is entirely silent in this book about the enslavement of black Africans for the profit of others.

He records an earlier discussion as a younger man in New York with an Iranian (presumably, like most Iranians, of Shia Muslim background), where “I took up the attack, asking the Iranian if he knew the names of the untold thousands who had leaped into the shark-infested waters before their prison ships had ever reached American ports…”. (p.116)

Justified anger. But what about those East Africans who reached, or never reached, Omani ports… or those other major slave trade destinations across the Indian Ocean, at which Muslim slave traders, including Iranians, off-loaded the human commodities who survived the voyage, stretching all the way to modern Pakistan?

What is revealed here is a deeply structured, wide-spread denialism in modern black political discourse, shared by Obama in this best-seller, with an explicit reference to his father (not his mother) in its title, which runs like this:

White, Christian, European slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean – bad.

Arab (and Iranian) Muslim slave trade across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East, Arabia and north India – sssshhhhh! No mention. Close your eyes. Shut your ears. Block your mind.

It’s the re-writing of history.

Very specifically, Obama makes the following statement in the second-last page of this book about his half-brother, Malik Obama: “The person who made me proudest of all, though [at Obama’s marriage in the US to his wife, Michelle, in 1992], was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol.” (p.441)

The point is not that Roy, now Malik, took the decision to convert to his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s religion. It is that Barack Obama describes this choice of religious faith as the way in which his half-brother “decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam…”.

African heritage is equated very closely here with Islam, while the slave-hunting history of that heritage is kept hidden.

Obama continues in the next paragraph, that Abongo (best man at his and Michelle’s Christian marriage) was “prone to making lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influence of European culture…”.

This “poisoning” is given a single, European source. The Islamic inheritance is left unexplored and ignored.

In fact, the Islamic slave trade in black people from East Africa continued for almost three times as long as did the slave trade by white, Christian Europeans of people from West Africa to white slave-owners in the Americas. It began not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, continuing until the 20th century. Beginning centuries before and finished decades after the “Atlantic” slave trade, this “Oriental” slave trade – conducted by Muslims – remains greatly under-studied. There is evidence that it continues today.

“Omani Arabs had been trading for slaves along the East African coast for centuries,” writes Segal, who escaped into exile from South Africa in 1960 together with the subsequent president of the African National Congress in exile, Oliver Tambo, going on to become the most important publisher in the world of books by banned South African writers such as Govan Mbeki, Ruth First and Professor Jack Simons. As Africa editor of Penguin Books in London, almost no library relating to South Africa up today would not have had several paperbacks published by Segal, who died in 2008.

Islam’s Black Slaves continues: “The Omanis on the coast were based at Zanzibar, and after taking control of Kilwa [half way down the coast to present-day Mozambique] in the mid-1780s, diverted to that island the bulk of the trade in slaves and ivory. …Some of these slaves were destined for Zanzibar, where the labor-intensive cultivation of cloves had begun soon after 1810 and was expanding rapidly in response to the growing world demand for cloves.

“By the 1850s, the island’s population might have included no fewer than sixty thousand slaves.” (p.146)

“At Zanzibar, the slaves were unloaded hurriedly,” Segal continues. “The dead were thrown overboard to drift with the tide, until they rotted in their passage. The sick and weak were left to lie on the beach, to save the customs-house tax, in case they died before they could be sold.” (p.148)

Segal notes it was only in 1897, after Britain had established its protectorate in Zanzibar, that slaves on the island were given the right to claim their freedom, and “even then, the concubines were exempted and would remain so until 1909.” (p.190)

Among slave-trading states and recipients of African slaves, slavery was legally abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen only in 1962, following its abolition in Iran in 1929. In Oman slavery was made illegal only as late as 1970. Black people are still referred to there by the derogatory Arabic term, “khedaam”.

Barack Obama was one of the most highly educated men ever to serve as President of the United States, having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University in New York in 1983, and a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School in 1993, where he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review.

If he had wanted to know more about his father’s East African heritage, there was no difficulty. Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770–1873, a study by Professor Abdul Sheriff of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, was published in 1987 by James Currey (London), Heinemann (Nairobi), Tanzania Publishing House (Dar es Salaam) and Ohio University Press (Athens, Ohio) – eight years before Dreams from my Father.

True, the Luo – living on the coast of Lake Victoria in the west of Kenya and speaking a Nilotic language, having been driven south 800 years previously by the Arab Muslim conquest of South Sudan – do not seem to have been affected, or greatly affected, by the East African slave trade. Its victims were drawn principally from the Bantu-speaking peoples of the “Zanj” nearer the east coast in present-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.

But this was no reason for Barack Obama to ignore this great fact of his father’s national heritage, with a direct moral relation to his own “inheritance” as an African American.

A generation earlier, Malcolm X had made the same omission. Following his return to the US in 1964 from a visit to Mecca and to Egypt, and having stated previously in an address that Islam is a “religion of brotherhood”, Malcolm X told the Organization of Afro-American Unity on 13 December 1964 at a gathering in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York: “Many of you have heard of the island called Zanzibar. Zanzibar was famous for its headquarters as a slave-trading post; in fact many of us probably passed through there on our way to America 400 years ago.” (Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, edited with Prefatory Notes by George Breitman. Grove Press Inc, New York, 1966. pp.163, 100)

Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965, before he had time to learn more about African history. Yet his comment was grossly misleading. Zanzibar was the great Islamic slave-trading centre on the east African coast for the Islamic societies of the Middle East and northern India. It would have made no commercial sense for Muslim slavers to have sailed their cargo from Zanzibar all the way round the Cape to sell the survivors in America, when so many would have died en route, at financial loss to the slaver. This was a false and misleading account given to black North Americans about their own history, a blockage of crucial knowledge continuing through to today.

Also: to miss the word “Zanj” in the name Zanzibar – meaning “black people” in Arabic, with “Zanzibar” meaning “coast of the black people” – was to miss the entire history of Islamic slavery in East Africa, as well as of the wars of black slaves of the Zanj in southern Iraq and eastern Iran between 869 and 879, just as it is to miss the reference to slave history in the middle of the name of modern Tanzania.

The issue is fundamental to modern history. As Alastair Hazell explains in The Last Slave Market (Constable, 2011) – a study of John Kirk’s long struggle as British consul to end the trade in Zanzibar-  by the mid-19th century, Mecca “had become an enormous centre for the buying and selling of slaves.” In Mecca and Medina, black youths who had been captured in east Africa and castrated as eunuchs “formed a special elite to guard mosques and other religious sites. …(T)he mortality rate was terrible – scarcely one in ten survived the terrible maiming surgery – but as a result, demand was high, and prices were at least ten times that of an uncastrated boy.” (pp.137.136).

In the same way, Stokely Carmichael made his home in Guinea for the last three decades of his life, without reference to the hundreds of years of Islamic slavery in Guinea as part of the Mali Empire before European colonisation.

As the North African Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, noted, the grand pilgrimage to Mecca of Malian emperor Mansa Musa in 1324 (724 in Islamic history) consisted of 12,000 slaves:

” At each halt, he would regale us [his entourage] with rare foods and confectionery. His equipment furnishings were carried by 12.000 private slave women (Wasaif) wearing gown and brocade (dibaj) and Yemeni silk […]. Mansa Musa came from his country with 80 loads of gold dust (tibr), each load weighing three qintars. In their own country they use only slave women and men for transport,but for long journeys such as pilgrimages they have mounts.”

Yet exclusion of Islamic slavery from the history of black people is now fundamental to the ideology of Black Lives Matter. In the same way, the cult of “Critical Race Theory” as it spreads globally from the United States is grotesquely uncritical. No question is asked about how the name Sudan comes from the Arabic title “Bilād al-sūdān”, meaning “country of the blacks”  from when polytheistic black people were a source of prey for Islamic slave masters.

This is a matter of systemic hypocrisy, and worse, serving to cover up the present-day expansion of Islamic jihad both in west Africa in the region of the former Mali empire, as well as in east Africa extending from Somalia into northern Kenya and south to the province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique – an independent African country which carries the name of an Islamic slave master, Musa Mbiki (Musa Bin Bique), the Arab sultan of the Island of Mozambique.when Vasco da Gama, the first European navigator to reach the east coast of Africa, landed there in 1498. 

In the UK, online travel advice for Mozambique now carries a warning from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to avoid to the region “due to attacks by groups with links to Islamic extremism.” A recent article in The Times, London (2 July 2020), noted how the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunna has become “increasingly fierce and well-organised. Machetes that were used to decapitate victims in its early attacks have been replaced with automatic weapons – a development viewed by analysts as the group’s reward for allowing Islamic State to take credit for recent gains.”

Now a branch of Islamic State, this terrorist group captured the most northern port in Mozambique, Mocimboa da Praia, in August. The slaughter of Islamic State is now grounded in southern Africa.

Yet this is excluded from the discourse of Black Lives Matter! With its radical dishonesty about black history, Black Lives Matter is serving in the last resort as a shield for Islamic jihad in Africa. 

For BLM, all black lives do not matter.

This is an adaptation of an articled that first appeared on Politicsweb in 2017 here.