Slavery was a routine part of human existence from the start, and in some lands still is. Nor were black Africans the only human beings to become slaves.... Slavery was a common disease that affected every community on earth; a shameful secret of the whole human family. Pictured: "The way in which Christian prisoners are sold as slaves at the Algiers market," an engraving from 1684 by Jan Luyken. (Image source: Amsterdam Historic Museum/Wikimedia Commons)
As the outrage inspired by the death of George Floyd in a botched arrest operation calms down, it may be time to consider what has been achieved by the anger it unleashed in dozens of cities across the world.
Sadly, I fear, not only that much of that anger was wasted but that it may have contributed to deeper communitarian ressentiments.
There are at least two reasons for this.
To start with Floyd's death was hijacked by merchants of grievances always on the lookout for an excuse to attack Western democracies, especially the United States. They translated Floyd into a "martyr" of American "imperialism" and pretended that the United States, along with other Western democracies, was a bastion of "racism."
Using rhetorical tricks, they dubbed Floyd's death as "murder", ignoring that the word has a precise meaning that can't be applied to the unfortunate incident in Minneapolis.
Floyd did die because a police technique used in more than 20 countries went badly wrong. But the policeman who became the agent of Floyd's death had not wished or planned to murder him. This is why English language has alternative terms such as manslaughter and premeditated murder.
The next trick used was to pretend that Floyd was killed because he was black. They ignored that the same choking technique of arrest in 2019 claimed several other lives, white and black, in the United States and France. Thus the real issue, the need for reviewing and/or dropping a technique of arrest that could lead to the death, was forgotten?
With extrapolation, the self-styled defenders of humanity saw the Minneapolis incident as an example of state-racism. However, racism is one thing and racial prejudice, even hatred, is another.
Racism denotes a world-view developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, dividing mankind into five races distinguished by real or imagined color of their skins. Like other monistic world-views that reduce human beings into a single element of their complex existence, racism, though deceptive in its simplicity, served as a barrier to scientific ethnography until the 20th century, preventing serious study of humanity in its rich diversity.
Other monochrome doctrines, for example Marxism with its division of mankind into classes -- proletariat good, bourgeois evil -- have a similar effect.
The racist world-view was an element in the composition of enduring state structures in all pre-modern Westphalian nations. In that regard the United States is no exception. However, it is something of an exception in being the only major nation-state to have struggled with and, as time went by, against, racism.
The War of Secession, successive civil rights movements, the fight against segregation and methods such as positive discrimination tell the story of a nation seeking to move away from racism. This does not mean that there is no racism in the US; there is, but it would be unfair to present it as a structural ingredient. By claiming that the US is a racist state, one would only encourage the white supremacists who wish that were the case.
Extrapolating further, the merchants of rage linked their claim of racism to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a bid to cast all Western democracies as the devils incarnate.
However, slavery was a routine part of human existence from the start, and in some lands still is. Nor were black Africans the only human beings to become slaves.
According to Xenophon, some 30 percent of the population of Athens, the birthplace of Hellenic civilization, was slaves, all white men and women from the Balkans and Asia Minor.
Even earlier than that, the first states in human history -- Sumer, Akkad and Babylon -- held slaves, none of them from Africa.
The Roman Empire was a great slave-holding power. Crassus, the notorious general, was a leading slave merchant as was Julius Caesar, dealing in slaves from Western and northern Europe, today's France and Britain.
The famous revolt of slaves led by Spartacus almost exclusively involved captives from the European continent. Crassus had 10,000 of them crucified on the Appian Way.
In Russia, slavery took the form of serfdom and again, concerned almost exclusively white and Asian victims.
Slavery was also a major trade in the American continent long before Christopher Columbus ended up there by mistake. Again, none of the slaves there were from Africa, which was unknown to Incas and Aztecs.
In Asia, Khan Balugh, the seat of power in medieval China, was a major center for slave trade, as was Khiva in what is now Uzbekistan. Again, Africans were not involved in that dastardly trade in Asia that claimed countless victims for more than 1,000 years.
In Persian and Ottoman Empires, slaves came from the Caucasus, Scandinavia, and what is now Russia. Again, no black Africans were involved.
Seizing black Africans as slaves may have started under Ramses II, the Egyptian Pharaoh who needed Nubian laborers to build the Ouaji-Seboua temple.
Next, there was some exporting of black slaves by the Carthaginians to Rome after the dismantling of Hannibal's empire. Once the Romans had annexed northern Africa they used Garmant and Afri tribes of black warriors to procure slaves for the empire. Within a decade, slave-taking raids were extended beyond Tibesti and close to Lake Chad.
Thus started the history of black African involvement in capturing fellow Africans for sale as slaves.
Without the service of African tribal chiefs and rulers, no outside power would have been able to raid deep into Africa to tap endless sources of slaves.
In 652 AD, Arab General Abdallah bin Sa'id signed a trade treaty, known as "bakht", with the ruler of Darfur for the supply of 20,000 slaves a year in exchange for gold. The "bakht" remained in operation for 13 centuries.
Black African rulers and tribal chiefs were also deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Sardona of Sokoto, in West Africa, made his fortune by selling slaves to Portuguese, British and French slave-traders. In his book Timbuktu School for Nomads, British author Nicholas Jubber introduces a slave trader from the Sahel who had become the richest man in the world of his time.
It is unfair to demand the removal of Colbert's status in Paris because he enacted the first slave code designed to impose legal control on the obnoxious trade and ensure some rights for the victims, and forget about African rulers who kidnapped and sold their own people.
Slavery was a common disease that affected every community on earth; a shameful secret of the whole human family.
In fact, although it lasted four centuries, black Africans of the transatlantic trade accounted for a smaller number than Europeans and Asians victims, not to mention Africans "exported" from the Horn of Africa and Zanzibar.
When it comes to slavery, we were all involved both as perpetrators and victims. Expiating that shame from our human existence is a task for us all, regardless of color and creed. Only thus the current cocktail of grievances may produce useful results.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.