One of the criticisms of the Quran is, “Why doesn’t the Quran ban slavery outright?” The response to this criticism is that the Quran provides the framework for a society to eliminate slavery without victimizing the very people one is trying to assist. There is no question that according to the Quran, slavery is a gross evil, but the truth of the matter is in much of the world when the Quran was revealed, slavery was an institutional practice that was so ingrained into society that if it was to be eliminated overnight, the entire society would be severely devastated, most notably the ones who were the slaves themselves.
Consider the suffering of black Americans that transpired for generations after the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 6, 1865, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. While the 13th Amendment marked a significant step towards ending racial segregation and discrimination in the United States, many former slaves and their descendants continued facing significant challenges and discrimination in the decades following its adoption. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, many former slaves were left without land, homes, or economic resources, and they faced significant barriers to education and political participation. Laws were passed that limited their freedom of movement, their ability to enter into contracts, and their right to bear arms. Many states also passed “Jim Crow” laws that imposed racial segregation and discrimination, particularly in the South. Almost 100 years later, the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an attempt to offset the discrimination that prevailed after the abolishment of slavery.
One of the popular mantras by libertarians is that government cannot legislate morality. This statement often gets misportrayed as meaning that legislation should not be based on morality, but this is an inaccurate representation. More appropriately, what is meant by this message is that unless legislation is aligned with the morality of the people, it will fail even if it is passed. Or put another way that just because something is a law does not mean society will adopt it. Therefore, the correct approach is to first change the people’s minds and then pass the legislation. People who think that they will change the morality of the people by forcing legislation before convincing the opposition of its merit are reversing the logical order that is required for long-term sustainable progress. When the will of the legislated is aligned with the legislation, the people will not actively attempt to undermine the law.
Recently, I was listening to an interview on Joe Rogan with the author and activist Siddharth Kara, regarding his book Cobalt Red, which documents the slave conditions of the laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the US Geological Survey, 170,000 metric tons (MT) of cobalt was mined in 2021, with 70% coming from the Congo. These laborers include children as well as mothers with babies strapped on their backs. The conditions are so horrendous that it has left innumerable individuals crushed to death, maimed, assaulted, disfigured, and not to mention the years of disease and ailment that the workers suffer operating without any personal protective equipment (PPE).
Cobalt is an essential metal that is used in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in every smartphone, laptop, electric car, and countless other electronics. According to data from the market research firm IDC, global smartphone shipments reached around 1.4 billion units in 2020, with Apple alone shipping ~215 million iPhones. Despite these staggering numbers, this was a significant decrease from the previous year due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Knowing this information, are you willing to stop purchasing any device that contains a lithium-ion battery? This includes no more smartphones, laptops, tablets, portable speakers, and the multitude of various other consumer electronics or medical devices. As I believe most people, including myself, are not willing to make that sacrifice, we have to be honest with ourselves to ask, “Why not?”
Firstly, if all purchases of any product with a lithium-ion battery were to cease today, society would fall into utter disarray attempting to immediately adjust to this new state of affairs. Much of the economy would halt, supplies wouldn’t get delivered, people would fall into starvation, riots would erupt, wars would break out, and the entire world would suffer.
Secondly, one has to ask what dire conditions the people in the Congo must be to accept such horrendous working conditions? For the most part, the people in the Congo are choosing such a horrid means of making money because the alternative of starving to death is much worse. If tomorrow the mines would be closed down and all the people would be barred from mining, the individuals who are being exploited to mine cobalt would be sadly in an even more precarious position than before.
The parallel between this and slavery is that the proper way to eradicate such abhorrent practices is by first shining a light on the injustice and avoiding willful blindness to the situation. Secondly, making the sacrifices necessary as a society to wean ourselves away from being accomplices in exploiting our fellow human beings. This includes putting pressure on the companies using lithium-ion batteries and being willing to pay more if we have to for these products to help fix the situation. Thirdly, creating a path for the people who are being exploited to have better opportunities.
Towards the end of the interview, Siddharth Kara explains that it is unrealistic and can be catastrophic for the world and the individuals in the Congo if we cease cobalt production tomorrow. Instead, he offered practical solutions that can be taken to fix and, God willing, eventually eliminate such atrocities. Something as simple as providing the laborers with proper PPE and equipment would be a relatively minor ask to start the process of such a major problem.
To have justice, we need to have the truth. Truth requires having our eyes open to the injustices that are taking place; otherwise, we are choosing to be willfully blind in our participation. We can no longer plead ignorance that we are unaware of the suffering occurring when we continue to purchase products with cobalt. All that is required to start the process of change is to begin to care and to spread awareness. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
God bless individuals like Siddharth Kara, who is bringing awareness to what is happening in the Congo. May God continue supporting him in his efforts to give a voice to the voiceless.