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Religion, Race, and Repression in Mauritania: The Ould Mkhaitir Apostasy Affair

[President Abdel Aziz addresses the public in January 2014 about the “blasphemy” of Ould Mkhaitir. Image by CRIDEM.] [President Abdel Aziz addresses the public in January 2014 about the “blasphemy” of Ould Mkhaitir. Image by CRIDEM.]

On 2 January 2014, Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ould Mkhaitir, a young Mauritanian engineer from the northern industrial city of Nouadhibou, published a denunciation of caste-based racism, which he framed as a call for religious reform. He dared to challenge the discrimination against Moulamines, the lowest of the low in Mauritanian society, and did so by provocatively criticizing some of the Prophet Mohammed’s acts. The government perceived his demand that Mauritanians cleanse their religion of racism as a fundamental attack on mainstream Mauritanian identity. He was promptly arrested and charged with apostasy, which is a capital offense.

In this country, racism runs deep. The most prominent racial hierarchy runs from Beydane (Arabs and Imazighen, or “White Moors”) to Haratine (mixed-race former slaves) to Black Africans (Wolof, Soninke, and Peuhl). Both Haratine and Black Africans are routinely denied national identity cards. This amounts to rendering such individuals stateless, as they are deprived of the basic rights of citizenship, including state-sponsored education, the ability to gain employment in the formal work sector, and the right to vote.

Despite the Islamic tenet that no Muslim should enslave another Muslim, Mauritania has the highest incidence of slavery in the world and there is a deeply rooted culture of slave keeping that is perceived as religiously legitimate. Even within Black African communities, there are slave owners and slaves. Slaves are taught that the only route to eternal salvation is through unquestioning obedience to their masters. This belief is so strong that some slave mothers will beat their own children into submission, and disown those who might escape.

The Ould Mkhaitir affair encapsulates and illuminates the broader battle for Mauritania’s future—whether it might follow a path toward international standards for democracy and human rights, or an Islamist reform agenda, or whether the military elite will remain in control through a combination of overt police repression and adroit maneuvering. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz pays lip service to human rights while simultaneously manipulating and condoning conservative religious views and caste-based racial hierarchies. 

One notable dimension of the use of apostasy charges in Mauritania is that they have been leveled only at those advocating human rights, equality, and the abolition of slavery. For example, in April 2012, Biram Dah Abeid, president of the outlawed human rights organization, the Initiative for the Resurgent Abolitionist Movement (Initiative pour le Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste, or IRA), led a demonstration that concluded with the burning of Maliki texts that codify slavery, racism, and the oppression of women. This destruction of Maliki legal codes led to the arrest of Abeid and several others on charges of apostasy.

Some Mauritanian Islamists, including those with ties to international groups such as al-Qaeda, have perpetrated violent assaults and murders, and some have preached hatred. But when Islamists are arrested for attacks on or incitement against Muslims, they are not charged with blasphemy or apostasy. 

The Allegedly Blasphemous Text by Ould Mkhaitir

If you take the time to read Ould Mkhaitir’s text, you will find that it presents a detailed discussion of early Islamic history. He highlights incidents when Mohammed showed mercy toward individuals and communities with whom he perceived some kind of blood or filial relationship, while endorsing punitive violence, exclusion, and enslavement toward others. Ould Mkhaitir views the roots of Islam through the lens of race to argue that discrimination was present from the beginning, thus demonstrating a human taint to what is often perceived to be pure and divine. By criticizing some of Mohammed’s actions, according to his accusers and those demanding his death, Ould Mkhaitir sullied the name of the Prophet.

In the following paragraphs, I summarize Ould Mkhaitir’s main points. He opens his essay by making a distinction between religion and religiosity. Religion, he writes, is the substance of divine truths, while religiosity, a human construct, is the practical implementation of religious teachings and decrees. In this vein, he makes a seemingly uncontroversial distinction between the infallible domain of the divine and the fallible (and evolving) domain of human activity.

Ould Mkhaitir invokes events in the year 624 during and after the Battle of Badr at Yathrib (Medina), where the followers of Mohammed took members of the Quraish tribe as prisoners. Abu Bakr presented these prisoners to the Prophet as cousins, relatives, and brothers, and argued that merciful inclusiveness would enable Muslims to grow stronger in their fight against infidels. One year later in Uhud, the Quraish again fought the Muslims, this time with the intent to annihilate them. Hind bint Utbah contracted the services of Wahshi to kill Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib, a companion and uncle of the Prophet. Some years later, after the conquest of Mecca, Hind converted to Islam. Mohammed awarded her the title “Great in Disbelief and Great in Islam.” Wahshi, Hind’s hired assassin, also converted. But rather than welcoming him into the community of believers with affectionate titles, Mohammed ordered him into exile. The determining factor in the different treatment of these two conspirators, Wahshi and Hind, according to Ould Mkhaitir, is that Wahshi was Abyssinian while Hind was Quraishi. Wahshi’s fate also compares unfavorably with Khaled Ibn al-Walid, who killed many Muslims in the battle of Uhud and who, when he converted to Islam, was awarded the distinguished title “Unsheathed Sword of Allah.” 

When the Muslims conquered Mecca, Mohammed allowed the residents to remain free, to keep their property, and to escape war taxes. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bani Quraidha, Mohammed again demonstrated selective largesse; he pardoned the Quraish and treated them with kindness, while persecuting the Jews of Bani Quraidha, ordering all males who had reached puberty to be executed. The women and children were taken as slaves and their descendants were enslaved.

Reflecting on these events, Ould Mkhaitir returns to his distinction between divine religion and human religiosity. “To whom does Mohammed grant mercy?” His answer is those with links of common ancestry, whereas those who lacked such ties were treated with hostility and violence even after conversion.

 In conclusion, Ould Mkhaitir writes that one who suffers must look frankly for the cause. In Mauritania, religion has been invoked to sanction racism and slavery, and religiosity plays a role in the discrimination and suffering of members of lower castes. Ould Mkhaitir’s text is a rebuke of the causes of their suffering and a call to purify religion of racism.

The Allegedly Blasphemous Text in Context

Ould Mkhaitir hoped to inspire a debate about racism and religion. According to the leading national news service, CRIDEM, “This is the first time a text critical of Islam and of the Prophet has been published in Mauritania, an Islamic Republic.”

However, despite the attention the Ould Mkhaitir affair has commanded, the substance of his critique has not cohered into a public debate about the religious roots of racism and extreme servitude within contemporary Mauritania. There has been no public discussion about his arguments, nor has anyone contended that Ould Mkhaitir’s account of early Islam is historically inaccurate. This silence is symptomatic of the depth of Mauritania’s racial tensions and the durability of the caste system. Only human rights groups, such as IRA, SOS-esclaves, and El Hor have addressed these issues directly.

Apostasy is a capital offense crime according to Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code despite its contested status in the broader Islamic tradition. According to renowned Islamic legal scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im, only Allah can judge the faith of an individual, and hence, the only punishment for apostasy should be meted out in the afterlife. Believers, in this view, should tolerate the apostate and allow divine justice to take its course. The Mauritanian state, however, refuses to cede ground to divine punishment. 

Those who are agitating against Ould Mkhaitir as an apostate and clamoring for his death find the mere allegations of blasphemy reason enough to rise up against what they feel is an insult to their religious sensibility. Within a day of publishing his essay on the internet, Ould Mkhaitir was in jail, charged with apostasy, and threatened with the full force of shari’a law. While capital punishment and whippings have not been practiced in Mauritania since the 1980s, calls—mainly Islamists’—for Ould Mkhaitir’s execution threaten to change that.

Since January, protestors have continued to demand Ould Mkhaitir’s trial and execution. Riots started in Nouadhibou, where Ould Mkhaitir lives, and spread across the country. Under public pressure, Ould Mkhaitir’s family publicly disowned him. He was fired from his job with SAMMA, a conglomerate partially owned by the Canadian mining corporation Kinross. 

According to shari’a law, an alleged apostate should be given three days to recant, and according to Mauritanian law, the apostate who repents regains his freedom and full rights. Ould Mkhaitir’s lawyer, Mohameden Ould Icheddou, insisted that his client did recant shortly after his arrest and that this recantation was recorded. The authorities seized this tape and have refused to make it public.

Public anger and threats have now been directed at Ould Icheddou as well as his family. These threats pushed the lawyer to resign from the case. Currently, Ould Mkhaitir has a government-appointed defense attorney and is out of jail pending trial. 

President Abdel Aziz’s Maneuvering

President Abdel Aziz contributed to the Islamist fury in January when he addressed the nation to reaffirm that Mauritania is an Islamic nation. For the occasion, he wore a white robe and turban, the attire of Salafis. In his speech, he committed the judiciary to punish apostasy, and asserted that capital punishment could be inflicted on Ould Mkhaitir. The president also donned Salafi attire in 2012 when speaking out against Abeid’s organization, IRA, and its destruction of Maliki legal texts. The sartorial intent is made clear by the contrast with his more common public image, in which he wears a suit and tie. This selective costuming illustrates his maneuvering between local Islamists and Western allies, including the United States and France.

President Abdel Aziz, who had established his career in the secret police, seized power in 2008. After the coup, the United States pursued an alliance and enlisted Abdel Aziz as a partner in the global “war on terror.” According to a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, US assistance to Mauritania has included programs to train police and prosecutors to act within the limits of law and to defend human rights. (For those who have watched with deep concern as the United States violated international laws prohibiting torture, there is reason to doubt the quality of these trainings.)

Institutional reforms under Abdel Aziz are ongoing. These include a new government agency to address slavery and slavery-related issues. A criminal penalty for owning slaves has been inserted into the Constitution. And at the urging of the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Contemporary Slavery, Gulhara Shahinian, the government adopted a road map to rid society of the vestiges of slavery that included the establishment of a new court dedicated exclusively to slave issues. All of these reforms, however, have yet to bear any fruit.

The High Costs of Defending the Rights of Slaves

Abeid and Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS-ésclaves, have criticized the road map as flawed in its design. For example, the celebrated 2007 law that established a criminal penalty for slave owning contains a subsection that stipulates that any prosecution must arise out of a slave filing a formal complaint to the prosecutor. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that slaves are illiterate, there is the constraining subsection that criminalizes aiding a slave to escape or to file a complaint. The end result of this “reformed” anti-slavery law is that human rights activists are frequently arrested and jailed for defending the rights of slaves and other oppressed people. To date, there has been one single arrest and prosecution for owning a slave, whereas numerous human rights defenders have been arrested for assisting slaves.

In April 2010, Abeid was fired from his position as Advisor to the National Human Rights Commission because of his persistent advocacy for the rights of slaves. Afterwards, an undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior threatened him with prosecution if he did not “cease all declarations and activities to fight against slavery.” Some months later, on 13 December, Abeid was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace after he tried to report a case of enslavement of two girls, aged nine and fourteen, to the police in Arafat. The police beat Abeid, leading to his hospitalization for injuries to his head and leg.

Repression of human rights activists includes the cases of Dah Ould Boushab and Cheikh Ould Vall. They ran afoul of the police when defending Haratines’ right to own property, which, in practice, is often usurped. Ould Boushab is in prison in Nouakchott and Ould Vall is in Kaedi. Fatma Jemal Mint Achour was arrested on 6 February 2014 for allegedly trying to obtain social services for Haratine in her neighborhood. She requested that a state-run charity registering households to receive distributions of meat register Haratine households as well. As she recounted in an interview, the official rebuffed this request, saying that Haratine are the filth of the earth, and deserve nothing from us. When Achour protested, the official slapped her across the mouth, furious that a Haratine had the temerity to respond, and said, “You have no right to speak, slave,” then arrested her and demanded that she be prosecuted. Achour served over two weeks in jail for this incident. 

Political Currents in the Region 

The political currents that have led the government to accede to Islamists’ demands to bring apostasy and blasphemy charges against human rights defenders and critics of slavery in Mauritania are to some extent shared across North Africa and the Sahel. Recent developments in the region over the last several years have tended to bolster Islamists, even as advocates of democracy and human rights struggle to gain ground. Notably, in the recent fight against the Islamist takeover in Mali, Abdel Aziz refused to commit Mauritanian troops to the French-organized intervention, even as he purported to support their efforts.

Conservative imams in Mauritania now have a political party, Tawasoul, led by Jemil Ould Mansour and Mohameden Ould Deddew. This party polled fifteen percent in the 2013 elections. Qatar, a leading proponent and funder of radical Islam across the Middle East, reportedly supports Tawasoul.

Meanwhile, the president has used the threat of radical Islam as a way to position himself as holder of the center-right against both ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, religious radicalism was one of Abdel Aziz’s excuses to seize power in 2008, deposing the only truly elected president in post-colonial Mauritanian history. (A special election later regularized his rule.) In the election that is scheduled for 21 June 2014, Abdel Aziz undoubtedly will win another term of office because his party and the military control the state apparatus, and because a significant portion of Haratine and Black Africans are denied the right to vote.

Islamist riots in the streets have provided the president the opportunity to fend off the importuning human rights activists. President Abdel Aziz has channeled his indulgence of Islamists by bringing apostasy charges against Ould Mkhaitir and others.

Apostasy and Human Rights 

The IRA’s 2012 demonstration, in which they destroyed Maliki texts that codified slavery, racism, and gender oppression, was an event that shocked part of the populace who regard the texts as touchstones for cultural norms that are widely revered, and galvanized another part of it who oppose or suffer as a result of their contents. The burned books included The Abridged Khlil in which slaves are referred to as “talking animals.” In others, slave women are consigned to the sexual license of their masters.

After IRA burned the texts, and while Abeid and other members of IRA languished in jail, the organization confronted the accusations of apostasy with a campaign to delegitimize the texts they had burned. They pointed out that these were neither from the Quran nor sunna and therefore had no divine significance. The organization even secured supportive fatwas from sympathetic imams. This campaign succeeded to a certain extent. The IRA members were released after several months of harsh imprisonment, and the trials for apostasy have been put on hold indefinitely.

Ould Mkhaitir, in contrast, acted as an individual rather than a member of an organization. Moreover, his online publication directly implicates Mohammed’s acts in racism and calls for religious reform. Compared to Abeid, who has a large public following among Haratine and other oppressed groups, Ould Mkhaitir is an easy target for a campaign of intimidation and repression fomented by imams who preach intolerance to their constituents, whereas mobilizing public support for this previously unknown individual is difficult. The IRA has provided some support, and defenders have emerged in the cyber-sphere, but an English language petition on Change.org has, as of this writing, only nineteen signatures.

Human rights activists dismiss the charges of apostasy against Abeid and Ould Mkhaitir with a combination of weary cynicism and fiery indignation. IRA’s public support for Ould Mkhaitir marked a call for a reasonable discussion. Abeid has pointed out that the leaders of the state and religious institutions, and other Mauritanians commit blasphemy and transgressions against the sacred when they condone racism, slavery, and the oppression of women, yet they go unpunished. Ould Mkhaitir did not want to stigmatize the Prophet, argues Abeid. Rather, he was reacting against this pervasive support for deep inequality and discrimination against his people.

While the Ould Mkhaitir affair has receded from public view while he awaits trial, Abeid has issued a public invitation to debate anyone willing to defend the legal codes in the books he destroyed back in 2012. Perhaps Abeid’s case was suspended because, were he to be prosecuted for charges of apostasy, the trial would have to feature an evaluation of these texts. To pursue prosecution while excluding the texts as evidence would contradict standards of justice or the appearance of a fair trial. On the other hand, if the texts were put into evidence, the government would have to acknowledge its support for slavery, gender oppression, and racism.

 

It is not clear how long Ould Mkhaitir will await trial or what the outcome will be. Abeid, meanwhile, has declared himself a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, calling himself the radical candidate. He is advocating rupture with the past, and positions himself as a proponent of an enlightened, slavery-free society and racism-free Islam.  His candidacy appeals to a significant portion of Mauritania’s population that is disaffected and longs for freedoms and enfranchisement. As long as these aspirations are stymied by the state, their energy is channeled into human rights activism and religious reform movements. 

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