An Interview with Nasser Weddady

Your family owned slaves when you were growing up. What was that like? When did that start to bother you?
When my father received his inheritance the first thing he did was free his slaves- so my immediate family didn’t own any slaves. However, some relatives did and also an integral part of our society. When I was young, I knew that something was not quite right about these people, but I didn’t know what it was. Then as I got older I was introduced to the system and learned that they were slaves- that I was their ‘superior’. It bothered me because it conflicted with what we were learning in school about people being equal.  

What is the history of slavery in Mauritania? How did thousands of black Muslims come to be owned as slaves by Arabs and Berbers?
In ancient times, slavery was a widespread phenomenon all over the world. In our area slavery was a result of trade with neighboring black kingdoms. Slaves were also taken as the spoils of war, and invasions were made specifically for that purpose. The great irony is that Islam strongly discourages owning Muslim slaves, yet that quasi-prohibition was not observed in Mauritania. The excuse for this was the necessary role of slaves within Mauritanian society. Slaves acted as a manual labor force- they cooked, cleaned, herded camels, and farmed. 

Why does slavery still exist today in Mauritania in 2006?
Well, first you have to realize that there’s no such place as a slave market in Mauritania- the phenomenon is much more subtle. Slavery has been legally abolished three times, but the government doesn’t enforce its own laws because it is afraid of offending the powerful Moorish slave owners. They try to keep the matter hushed up because they fear Mauritania’s image would be damaged if the real situation came to light. As for the slaves themselves, they are raised with the idea that being a slave is part of their religious duty. Besides, if they left their masters, where would they go? They are uneducated and there are no social services to help them. Even the free descendents of slaves remain Mauritania’s most under-privileged class. Much still remains to be done before these citizens can enjoy full equality. 

Why did you become an anti-slavery activist? Why didn’t you just accept the status quo?
I did not grow up in Mauritania. I’ve spent only 8 years there, and I’ve moved around quite a bit. So I was exposed to many influences during my own process of development, and I came to feel that slavery is profoundly wrong. I took its continued existence in Mauritania personally. It was a mark of how backward the country is. If Mauritania is ever to develop, ever to embrace modernity, slavery must be the first thing to go. 

You’re a member of the Mauritanian Anti-Slavery Group, SOS Slaves. What does your organization do?
SOS Slaves was founded in 1995, but it was banned in Mauritania until very recently. Our goal is to find, document, and expose cases of slavery. We advise those who approach us, and advocate for their rights. We assist them legally and practically. We work to focus international attention on the issue of slavery. Mauritania is a poor country which depends on foreign aid, so we inform foreign donor countries of the situation. The representatives of the international community within Mauritania have not been responsive, but we try to bypass them and reach world public opinion directly. 

How has the Mauritanian government responded to pressure to end slavery?
The government pays lip service to the issue, but doesn’t take any real action. The ruling military junta which deposed Colonel Taya is widely regarded by the big powers as progressive, yet they refuse to deal with the issue of deported black Mauritanians. They also won’t undertake any investigation of the mass killings against that community committed by Colonel Taya’s regime. Indeed, it’s in the government’s best interest not to, since any changes could undermine the hegemony of the Arab and Berber rulers.  

Mauritania isn’t the only Arab country that has racial tensions. Are you optimistic about the struggle for racial justice in the Arab world? Why or why not?
I would not say that things look bright for us. We face many difficulties. Often reformers get mired in the complexities of international politics and become less effective. It is hard to establish credibility since we are often identified with the West, and there is a certain mistrust of Western concepts and policies in the Arab world. Also, many Arab countries are still ruled by unelected, non-representative governments. Some owe their very existence to racial and ethnic tensions. However, there is a ray of hope now as more and more individuals begin embracing grassroots activism. There is more awareness. This is the kind of activism that produces real effects in the long run.  

How did Colonel Taya manage to rule over Mauritanian society for over 20 years? What were the techniques he used?
He exploited tribal tensions to divide society, making himself the necessary arbitrator of tribal disputes. To this he added the repressive forces of the military and intelligence services. He gave commercial privileges to his tribesmen, so that a numerically negligible tribe became the depositors of the country’s wealth. Also, in the second year of his reign he took over the licensing of Mauritania’s rich fishing industry. He granted his supporters fishing licenses, changing them from paupers to millionaires almost overnight, and in the process causing an environmental disaster. Dictatorships don’t function only by brutish force. And everything happened in full view of the international community, which did nothing to stop it.  

You actually spent much of your childhood as the son of a diplomat living in Syria. What was it like to grow up in Syria under the Assad dictatorship? What sorts of repression did you experience?
Because of my father’s diplomatic status, I was immune to most sorts of repression. However, I did witness a few incidents which affected me deeply. In the spring of 1982 there was a wave of terrorist bombings. My mother and cousin were attacked by paratroopers of the Defense Brigade ripping off their head-scarves with bayonets, out of fear that they might be hiding weapons and as a punishment for being religious. Later, in the beginning of 1985 there were rumors that President Assad was on the verge of death. I was in my house one night when suddenly every gun in Damascus started shooting- we thought that war had begun with Israel. As it turns out, the military was celebrating Assad’s recovery.

What are the biggest challenges to economic liberty in the region, in your view?
The existence of dictatorships prevents the entrepreneurial spirit from taking hold in the region. Political regimes exercise a sort of monopoly over our economies, making them into a privileged sector. Corruption and incompetence add to the stagnation. Ironically, the biggest telecommunications contract in history of Mauritania was awarded to immediate family members of Colonel Vall, a supposed reformer, in collaboration with the Al-Basheer regime in Sudan. The only way to emancipate our economies is by giving guarantees to investors that they will be able to operate from a legal cadre and
that their investments will make returns. I’m convinced that the Middle East’s economic struggles don’t stem from a lack of resources or entrepreneurial spirit- rather, we are being smothered by our governments and their policies.

You mentioned that corruption is impeding economic progress in many Arab countries. Is that the case in Mauritania?
Definitely. For example, during the last military coup there was a scandal when it was discovered that the terms of the oil agreement signed with the Australians were highly disadvantageous to Mauritania. The new government arrested the oil minister, who was already known to be corrupt. However, he was released after a token investigation, presumably undertaken to pressure the implicated Australian company into signing a new agreement with more advantageous terms. In a later incident, it was discovered that the same minister who was responsible for providing falsified reports to the World Bank and the IMF over a period of five years admitted to his deeds to the World Bank and IMF as a reconciliatory measure was
in order after Taya’s ousting. After all this, he remains in power in the transitional government. There is no accountability in our political system.

What has been the effect of oil on the economy of Mauritania?
The discovery of oil negatively affected the country and economy-at least before the beginning of its extraction. Colonel Taya exerted great efforts to remain in power until the beginning of oil production because it was thought that oil would tie him to Western interests so that no one could seriously consider unseating him. That had a negative effect on political life in Mauritania. Psychologically, the discovery of oil seemed to be a great boost to the country’s morale. Mauritanians had been demoralized for 30 years, and it was a glimmer of hope. For two decades the government had had to follow the advice of the World Bank and the IMF, which demanded that it reduce expenditures by canceling social services. There was a total withdrawal from social security, food subsidies and health care. This caused great hardship for most Mauritanians. It also caused a return to tribalism, as people sought to provide for needs the government no longer met. 

What are the biggest taboos that remain in the Middle East? How do you see them being addressed?
I think the biggest remaining taboo is self-criticism. I don’t think that Arabs are solely responsible for all the region’s problems, but we need to recognize our own faults and failures. I believe the recent Danish cartoon controversy illustrates the nature of these taboos. Everyone was up in arms because of a bunch of insignificant drawings, yet they are cowed into silence when Arabs die by the dozens in bombings each day. We will speak out against the faults of others, but not ourselves. However, I believe it is inevitable that these issues will be addressed by future generations. As long as these problems continue to exist, they will inevitably remain on the region’s agenda. They can’t be swept under the rug any more. 

Who are your intellectual heroes? Why?
I admire Sophie Scholl and the members of the White Rose resistance movement who had the courage to speak out against the Nazis, even knowing they faced certain death. They showed courage in the face of tyranny. That’s certainly not an enjoyable position to be in, but someone’s got to do the job. I also admire Nelson Mandela. He had a consistent message and the courage to continue his struggle. When he got to power, he didn’t go on a witch hunt, seeking revenge for
centuries of oppression. That impresses me.

As a young activist in your early 30s, what would you say to young people in the region who want to stand up for racial justice and intellectual freedom?
We are the only ones who can reform our societies. Don’t kid yourselves- no one else can do it for us. It isn’t an easy task, but the world has changed and now we have tools that our forefathers never had. In his science fiction series Dune, Brian Herbert writes that “Fear is the death of the mind”. We can’t let fear cloud our ability to think, to speak out and change our world.