Book Review: Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie

Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, the religious sociology of religious revival and environmental change and urbanisation, the rise of Arab and west African youth cultures and politics and contradictions of Arab and Muslim identity movements and well as slavery in northwest Africa. Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.

A Mauritania Outlook

SUMMARY: In December this blogger spoke to small audiences about some of the issues facing Mauritania going into 2013. This post is built on the bullet-point notes prepared for these presentations, which were open to the public and represent only his views. This blogger is often more pessimistic than others (bias, admitted) and anticipates an eventful year in Mauritania. Protest movements are likely to grow in size and intensity. In thinking about Mauritania at this stage it is important remember that in trying for the best case it is possible to produce the worst. Much depends on whether fair elections are held and if the government fulfills its responsibilities to fill constitutionally mandated offices. At the same time, elections or appointments regarded as suspect by opposition currents may reinforce stalemate and gridlock. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that increasing western support for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will feed into existing opposition sentiments that regard the current regime as illegitimate and the international community as more or less complicit in its exploit and excesses. The strong likelihood that Mauritania will be drawn into the French/ECOWAS-led intervention (this construction is deliberate) in northern Mali increases this possibility as Ould Abdel Aziz is likely to continue be seen as a basically reliable partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts (for a summary of this view in the American press see here; for a Mauritanian rebuttal of this line of thinking see here). Furthermore, the president’s reputation and relationship with the military may be a source of further instability emerging from potential war casualties, internal personal and political disagreements and potential shifts in the political scene. Trouble can be avoided but outsiders have serious challenges to ponder and should not assume away or downplay the very significant risks in the country stemming from basic qualities in its leadership and political system.

Continue reading

Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (I)

SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):

  • News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
  • Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
  • Creative Responses

This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. Continue reading

Mechanizations in Mauritania: Reports

After a month with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in hospital in France, members of Mauritania’s ruling party, opposition and military appear to be growing impatient. Early November saw the first mass protests since the president was shot in early October and Mauritania’s generals met on 17 October in a reportedly tense meeting during which the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohamed Ould Ghazouani came under pressure from some attendees to take a more assertive political role, which Ghazouani reportedly resisted. Articles in Essirage and al-Akhbar, two Mauritanian Arabic-language news sites, recently published reports describing parliamentary mechanizations that might lead to major changes in the political landscape in coming days and weeks. The report discusses efforts by members of parliament to find a way ‘out of the constitutional vacuum’. One should note how some external analyses of the situation in Mauritania over the last year have elided or ignored its constitutional dramas, set in motion largely by the president with the help of parts of the opposition (through passivity or inertia), not least the failure to hold parliamentary elections on time which has meant that the political system has been more or less extra-constitutional since about last October. Continue reading

RE: The ‘Accidental’ Shooting of the Mauritanian President

Summary. Some confusion exists around the shooting of the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The post speculates about the possibility of a coup or assassination attempt on the basis of a number of rumors about potential motivations and scenarios behind the incident based on the current political environment and does not claim to offer a conclusive judgment. However, it is unlikely that the current situation does not present ambitious men with opportunities to take action and take what they want. Or not. Continue reading

Index I: El Djeich and the Sahel, Jan.-Sept. 2012

It is well known that in Algeria lines of decision-making and even the broad outlines of specific foreign or military policies are generally opaque to outsiders. Finding and making sense of various official statements and interviews and reports about the activities, orientation and intentions of the Algerian government toward political change and instability in Libya, Tunisia and the collapse of Mali and the domination of its north by the armed Islamist groups is both time consuming and difficult; rumour and conjecture and disinformation from all quarters mingle with, distort and even illuminate the ‘truth’ for those seeking answers. What the state presents and says can hardly be taken entirely at face value but is of as much use as anything sitting in public or in the shadows. For sometime, the Algerian military has used official journals to publicise its ideological, strategic and political intentions for both internal and external audiences; these must of course be taken in context and for what they are and are not, as all sources must.

El Djeich is the premier journal for these purposes, to say nothing of technical and bureaucratic journals and bulletins. El Djeich is also relatively accessible: it is published in print and online (though issues before 2010 are harder to come by than more recent ones); most issues mentioned here can be obtained for free from the Algerian Ministry of National Defence’s (MDN) website. This monthly (published since 1963) provides the official rhetoric of Algeria’s general staff as communicated to an internal audience frequently (it is policy relevant); it also provides information on meetings between the Algerian armed services and foreign military and civilian delegations, military exercises and operations, training regimes and other elements pointing to the personnel and disposition of the moving parts that make up its armed and civilian element. It also provides context for major political decisions (for example, the February 2011 issue includes a long section detailing the rationale and implications of the lifting of the emergency law in place since the 1992 coup d’etat) and frequently provides the text of speeches, letters and messages from senior Algerian officers and diplomatic officials on various issues. It also includes interviews and articles by military and civilian subject matter experts from Algeria and abroad on various technical fields.

The spreadsheet linked below is an index of direct and indirect references to what might can be generally called the ‘Sahel Crisis’ (or crises) brought on by uprisings, rebellions, narco-trafficking and destabilising corruption in the Maghreb and the Sahel during the last two years in the journal of the Algerian armed forces, El Djeich. The first installment of the index includes the January -September 2012 editions of El Djeich, with titles (in French) and subject, section (in French), page and ‘key word’ references; the second installment will include the January December 2011 editions. These are meant to help the reader find articles by category and supplement his research. Several feature stories on criminal-terrorist activities on Algeria’s borders, humanitarian aid operations in Mali and other border regions (including Libya) give insight into the way the Algerian official discourse continues to juxtapose Algeria as a guarantor of stability and a bastion of stability in north-west Africa both to the public at large and to its own personnel; indeed the crisis in the Sahel was the cover story in October 2011, and the subject received heavy attention in the January 2011 issue as well. In the 2012 editions, comments, statements from Abdelkader Messahel, the minister delegate charged with Maghreb and African affairs are frequent and conspicuous, as are meetings between Messahel and foreign military delegates.There is an obvious emphasis on humanitarian operations within Algeria and in its immediate vicinity; at the strategic level emphasis is placed on the African Union, multilateral-regionalist ‘solutions’ and on bilateral military-military activities.

Since El Djeich habitually dedicates a large part of its articles to military sports (both within Algeria and on the continent), this section is ignored; thus in some issues one can find articles about Burkina Faso or Nigeria or some other such country of interest only in this section. These are omitted.  El Djeich is published in French and Arabic (as many official things are in Algeria); this blogger assumes readers will have as easy a time or an easier time with the French version and thus the index refers exclusively to the French language edition.

[2012 El Djeich stories RE%3A Sahel Crises – ED12 (1), PDF]

UPDATESee this sheet for 2012 El Djeich Stories on the Sahel – January – December 2012.