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.

Charts: APN 2012-2017 Features & Bodies

This post provides a graphic overview of some of the internal bodies and features of the 2012-2017 Algerian National Assembly (Assemblée Populaire Nationale/al-Majlis al-Sha’abi al-Watani; APN) — the lower house of the Algerian parliament. The graphics included below include the members of the APN Bureau and Standing/Permanent Committees and Commissions in charts and graphs. The information here is taken from the APN website, which has a good amount of information about the delegates and their activities, but not enough. Information on membership of the APN ‘Friendship Committees’ for various countries is not yet available there as it is for past APN classes (see the Charts & Graphics page for the membership of the 2007-2012 friendship committees).

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PDF.

Some Long Thoughts: Algeria Plays Defence

SUMMARY: This post is several posts  originally written in January and February merged together. These posts were put off from being posted for reasons of time, attention deficits and levels of satisfaction. They were all originally experiments in ways of thinking about recent events to do with Algeria’s defensive posture (which has been the subject of so much writing lately). It is concerned with some of the public writing and analysis on Algerian foreign policy, especially with respect to Mali immediately before and during France’s intervention there. The main gist is related to Algeria’s strong attachment to its national sovereignty in foreign policy, its defensive (also called ‘paranoid’) posture overall, and the country’s self-image in world politics and their influence on its behaviour in the world. It is not concerned with evaluating or making a case for how Algeria or other ought to do one or the other such thing in foreign affairs. It is however interested in considering adjusting some common assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in general.

It also includes some thoughts on issues such as the assumptions and expectations seen in some public writing about Algeria’s military capabilities, its ‘success’ in fighting terrorism, the extent and scope of its ambition as a regional ‘hegemon’ mainly in the post-Qadhafi period, opacity in Algerian decision-making and its origins; it also includes some remarks related to the complications of Algeria’s ongoing generational transformation. It is not meant to be definitive or authoritative, just one grain of sand on a long beach. Continue reading

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

Since the beginning of France’s intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), users of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted continuous news updates on the situation in northern Mali. During much of 2012, forum users have seen Mali as an unqualified success for Salafi-jihadism in Africa, posting long essays and poems praising and theorising the potentials that an Islamist emirate in Azawad would offer their cause. Mali’s jihadist groups allayed suspicions over their legitimacy and authenticity by posting increasingly voluminous threads featuring videos, photographs and newsletters with news from the region showing the implementation of shari’ah in Timbuktu and Gao, and documenting the Islamist coalition’s battles against the MNLA and the Malian Army at various points. Previous analysis of jihadi posts on Mali on this blog focused on user produced content – poems, essays and so on. This post focused on the same in light of Operational SERVAL. Generally speaking, these user contributions focus on depicting France within the narrative of a ‘Crusader’ state seeking to oppress Muslims and stunt the practice of Islam in a Muslim country. the proliferation of posts by a number of different users points to a general expansion of interest since the onset of the French intervention; previously there was limited interest compared to Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia; threads discussing Mali have dominated the front three pages of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum since last week. Some posts feature links to articles or essays or announcements from groups based in Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine especially)[1] or jihadist clerics (for example, Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti’s new essay on Mali – interestingly titled ‘The Battle for Shari’ah in Mali’[2]). These occasionally produce interesting discussions but are beyond the interest of this post. Continue reading

Some Early Algeria Perspectives on the Sahel Situation

SUMMARY: Thus far Algerian press coverage of France’s military intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), in reaction to additional thrusts south by Mali’s jihadist coalition, is divided. Scepticism that has been prevalent in Algerian media coverage of calls for the internationalisation of the Malian crisis remains a strong thread in opinion and editorial writing nonetheless. While significant strands of elite opinion (especially at the political level) appear to have somewhat rallied to support military intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, the Algerian government’s longstanding position in favour of ‘dialogue’ and a ‘political solution’ to the crisis remain evident in press reports, government statements and scepticism over the prospects the intervention will successfully resolve Mali’s troubles persists. Comments from Algerian intellectuals (depicting the campaign as a ‘proxy war’ of the United States or as destined for failure) and highlights given to the opinions of certain French voices suggest some level of discomfort over France’s intentions and the Algerian government’s role in the crisis; this is to be expected to some extent given the background of distrust between Paris and Algiers over Mali as well as the nature of Franco-Algerian relations in general. Outside of the major dailies, some confusion does appear to exist over Algiers’s position in the ongoing struggle – a result of the government’s stinginess with public comments.

The Algerian government’s decision to allow over flight rights to the French Air Force, along with troop and helicopter movements in southern Algeria suggest Algiers will likely play an enabling role by opening airspace, attempting to block off escape routes, and intelligence sharing (the targets and locations hit by the French suggest Algeria and other countries may be assisting in this manner). The Algerians may also seek to assist in negotiating post-war planning, despite the [apparent] failure of its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Ansar Ed-Dine and Bamako; the timing of Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko’s two-day visit to Algiers speaks to Algiers’s continuing desire to impact political conditions in Mali. France’s aggressive (speaking descriptively, not legally) moves in Mali appear to have given momentum to international and regional efforts to push forward an intervention in Mali and may be bringing along Algeria at the same time. The messages coming out in certain (especially French-language) Algerian press accounts, via anonymous security officials, is that Algeria decided to abandon dialogue with Ansar Ed-Dine and others in northern Mali in favour of an immediate armed campaign when its leaders renounced non-aggression pacts they signed at Algiers’s egging and participated in attacks in Konna and elsewhere with AQIM. This post only reviews French-language media, Arabic-language media will be covered in a separate post. It looks at perspectives through the beginning of the week of 13 January. Continue reading

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