The Imam and the Slaves

This article first appeared in The Jewish Advocate

The Imam and the Slaves

By Charles Jacobs

April 22, 2010

I was in Israel for Pesach, near Ashkelon – not all that far from where the rockets fall. At our Seder I was reminded, as I am each year at this time, of the Passover I spent in South Sudan 10 years ago, witnessing the emancipation of slaves. At the point where the Haggadah commands us to remember that we Jews were slaves in Egypt, I privately re-lived a stunning moment in Sudan: John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International stood in front of hundreds of black African women and children and explained that money had been paid to their masters and now they were free. I had never experienced – and don’t expect to ever again – such cries and dances of joy.

During that Pesach week, accompanied by a reporter from New England Cable News, I witnessed the redemption of more than 2,000 black slaves, some with money that my organization, the American Anti-Slavery Group, had raised to free them. A few months before, in what would years turn out to be an incredible irony (see below), Mayor Thomas Menino and MLK’s widow Coretta Scott granted Boston’s first Freedom Award to AASG at a ceremony at the Old South Church. The Creator, it appears to me, works with patterns and seeming coincidences. When I returned to Boston last week, I got an email from Eibner, who had just returned from Sudan, again having helped free hundreds of slaves. In 2005, the Arab war on the Africans in South Sudan was put on hold by an American-brokered truce – a result of years of efforts by a gaggle of Sudan campaigners. Arab Muslim militias no longer storm African Christian and animist villages as they did for decades, shooting the men and capturing women and children as slaves. Yet the truce agreement failed to include the liberation of those slaves then held in the North; today many blacks still serve their Arab masters.

Eibner’s organization raises funds for cow medication, which he then trades to Arab herdsmen for their help in buying up slaves and bringing them south to freedom. The American Anti-Slavery Group, in semi-hibernation for these past few years, is now being rekindled to, among other things, help with these redemptions. (You heard it here first.)

Eibner’s most recent trip was chronicled by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and NPR’s Ellen Ratner, who reports that 35,000 black Sudanese remain enslaved in the North. One redemption story chronicled by Gerson in particular caught my eye. Abuk Garang Theip, aged 12, was captured six years ago. She told Gerson that her master’s wife cut her leg with a knife when she refused to convert to Islam. Eventually, her genitals were mutilated in order to make her a “clean Muslim wife.” (The Sudanese Muslim Arabs declared their war on the South to be a jihad intended to spread Islamic rule over the oil-rich Christian/animist South.)

Patterns? Coincidences? Mayor Menino – having honored me for freeing jihad slaves from Islamist jihadis – years later turned over a multimillion dollar piece of land in Roxbury to the Islamic Society of Boston, whose leaders deny slavery exists in Sudan. Last summer, as Menino was cutting the ribbon at the ISB’s Roxbury center, I was leading a protest against the ISB’s extremist leadership across the street. As I was being filmed (again by NECN), a group of Imams carrying white roses came up to me with a (camera-inspired, I’m convinced) “message of peace.” As the cameras rolled, I became involved in a debate with Abdullah Faarooq, an ISB-affiliated imam and head of the historically African-American Mosque for the Praising of Allah. I asked him how he feels about the black slaves kept in bondage by his coreligionists in Sudan. He became incensed: “No, no, no, no – there are no blacks enslaved in Sudan.”

Patterns? Though we had about 40 protesters, black and white, Christian and Jew, some “progressives” in the Jewish community were angry at us for not accepting the radical Islamists of the ISB as the tolerant neighbors they claim to be. We were publicly taken to task in the pages of The Boston Globe by Michael Felsen, the leader of the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, a group whose name and stated mission implies that it would place the liberation of Abuk’s oppressed people over just about anything.

So, in the spirit of Passover, and in the spirit – I’ll even add – of “Jewish progressivism,” I want publicly to ask Michael for his help. Could the Workmen’s Circle, could you, Michael, try to persuade Imam Faarooq to speak out against the enslavement of blacks by his coreligionists in Sudan? Or are Jewish progressives willing to sacrifice black slaves on the altar of today’s idol – political correctness? Michael? Remember, we were slaves in Egypt.