The non-Arab population of Mauritania traditionally has been discriminated against by the ruling Arab-Berber class, to a large degree being enslaved. Class division in Mauritania still mainly goes along ethnic lines. Many fear that an Arabisation of Mauritanian administration and education will deepen differences and segregation.
“Mauritanian students protest Arabisation,” Afrol. 16 April, 2010.
Analysts believe that this is an essential fight for the Fulani, Wolof, Soninke and other black-skinned groups, who account for about a third of the country’s population, as the Arabic language consolidates the position of the Arab-Berber majority who wield more political and economic power, and who have often been accused of enslaving the minority Black populations. Slavery which is still practiced by the Arab-Berber populations was abolished three times in Mauritania in the last century alone.
“Mauritania: Marginalised Black populations fight against Arabisation,” 8 April, 2010.
Both of the above quotations come from articles about the protests in response to comments by Mauritania’s Prime Minister regarding the Arabic language earlier this month (the student unions agreed to a truce on 16 April). The situation will receive more comment later, but it is important to stress that this is immediately symptomatic of a long-standing intra- and inter-elite rivalry between so-called arabisants and francisants (Arabic and French-educated Mauritanians) and the widespread frustration that exists in the country as a result of the political and economic situation. Practically all Mauritanians are grumbling about something, and this is one of them. Yet it is also worth mentioning that in the recent cabinet reshuffle an unusually large number of Afro-Mauritanians were given ministerial portfolios (eight) — partly meant to sure up support for Genera. Ould Abdel Aziz within the Afro-Mauritanian elite which is important in the administration and generally. That Arab students protested the Ministry of Education’s apology for Laghdaf’s statement, provoking clashes between Arab and Afro-Mauritanian students in high schools and at the University of Nouakchott, speaks to the extent to which the deteriorating political circumstances have increased tensions at ground level. A statement posted on Click4Mauritania calls for a national dialogue on the issue of Arabization. The Arabization issue is controversial both with arabisants who would benefit if the state and economy were more uniformly friendly to them and from francisants who benefit from the status quo. Aqalame has a good run down of the “Arabization Crisis in general here. (See here for background on the Arabization program in general.)
That said, the two paragraphs quoted above are problematic for several reasons.
1. “The non-Arab population of Mauritania traditionally has been discriminated against by the ruling Arab-Berber class, to a large degree being enslaved.” It is absolutely correct that non-Arabs have been and are discriminated against in Mauritania. It is false to say, categorically, that Mauritanian blacks are “to a large degree being enslaved” by Arabs. A statement of that nature requires clarification. Firstly, slavery exists among both Arab and Afro-Mauritanians; the caste/class system that exists among the Beidhan/Arabs/Moors is mirrored within the Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof-speaking communities. Secondly, the most well known and largest set of Mauritanian slaves are the Haratine, who make up a significant part of the population in general (the low estimate is 30%, though it is probably higher), and whose language is Arabic, are not bought or sold, but inherited within slave-holding families. There are no slave markets or Arab raiding parties roaming through Gorgol or Gidimaka picking up blacks for house work. So while black Haratine are enslaved, they are not being enslaved in the way the article implies.
2.”Analysts believe that this is an essential fight for the Fulani, Wolof, Soninke and other black-skinned groups, who account for about a third of the country’s population, as the Arabic language consolidates the position of the Arab-Berber majority who wield more political and economic power“. This does not well describe the structure of Arabic-speaking society in Mauritania and the language problem at large. Arabic certainly solidifies and symbolizes the domination of the state by Mauritania’s Arabic-speaking elite. But Arabic-speaking society in Mauritania also includes the Haratine. The Halpulaar, Fulani, Wolof and Soninke elites have their own positions secured by the continued presence and use of French in economic and administrative affairs. Ethnic Arabs benefit from their ethnicity more than their language politically and economically. A Mauritanian who wishes to work in a bank will get nowhere if he does not speak French, no matter how good his Arabic might be. An Afro-Mauritanian with limited Arabic but good French in the same situation is another story, though. There is a class of displaced middle-class Arab Mauritanians whose job prospects are limited because they lack good French — many of them become journalists in the Arabic press or go into religion. The point is not to set it up as if one or the other group is worse off but instead to say that the picture is not black and white. The language issue affects both black and Arab Mauritanians and both groups use it to their advantage and to the other’s disadvantage when possible. The governing elite has been dominated by francisants, Arab and black, since independence — either military or civilian. The private sector and the important state enterprises show no bias for Arabic-speakers except where they are francisants. The desire to block Arabization comes in part from a desire to preserve that status quo for those educated in French. Linguistic discrimination in favor of French does exist in Mauritania. Arabisant carries a connotation of backwardness and inferiority in Mauritania. The situation has parallels with Algeria and Morocco.
3. When one reads about enslaved “blacks” in the same sentence as the linguistic grievances of middle class Afro-Mauritanian francisants he should pause. The two issues are not the same and the line of thinking that links the two has more to do with political ideology (e.g. the program of black nationalists like the FLAM) than it does any empirical evaluation of the situation between the Arab and black elites, the Haratine and the Afro-Mauritanian servile classes. The protests and counter protests (the protests by black students were followed by protests by Arab students opposed to the Ministry of Education’s apology) have little at all to do with the status of the Haratine. It is very much the case that black Mauritanians fear being displaced from the state and the economy by Arabization and that this sensitivity comes from repeated and violent purges in the past (recall the 1989 violence that led to several tens of thousands of them being expelled into Senegal). Many Moors are wary of the language issue, as would be expected (a common refrain is: Arabic is the official language, the constitution mandates Arabic as the official language, let us enforce the constitution); it is undoubtedly a serious issue not simply for reasons of identity, but because coherence and equal opportunity (or at least the perception of such things) are relevant in ethno-linguistically divided polities like Mauritania. The slavery issue, however, is another problem altogether and needs to be understood as a part of Arabic-speaking society in Mauritania as well as the context of minority rights in general. These issues are interrelated and the advancement of black Africans and the Haratine in Mauritania requires greater flexibility from the Moorish community.
But the issues should not be too thoroughly compartmentalized. Mohamed Yahya Ould Ciré recently wrote about the use of the Haratine for political purposes by both conservative Moors and black nationalists and his analysis is valuable in the context of this post. His argument goes like this: The argument that many Moors claim the Haratine as “Arabs” in order to obscure the problem of slavery by limiting the ability of those people to self-identify and upset the status quo. This argument is also used to use the large number of Haratine as a way to bolster the claim that Arabic-speakers are the ethnic majority and that the domination of the state by Moors is thus justified. But there is a legitimate social and cultural argument that the Haratine are Arabs (in the same way that the descendants of European and black slaves elsewhere in the Maghreb and Egypt are considered ethnic “Arabs”). The argument that the Haratine are not Arabs, but blacks in the same way as the Afro-Mauritanians along the southern border, is similarly political in nature and aimed at using their numbers in argumentation against Moorish political domination. But the way Ould Ciré sees it, Mauritanian black nationalists “have never fought against Moorish slavery” and when it comes to rights for the Haratine, the Moorish and black African elites are “steeped in contempt and political maneuvers”. This is a relatively controversial analysis, but it bares mentioning in this context especially. It is also worth mentioning that the APP, led by Messaoud Ould Boulkheir and several other important Haratine leaders, is itself very much in line with Arab nationalist ideas, especially Nasserism. The tendency among the major Haratine leaders (though not all) has been to affirm the Arabism of the Haratine community while pushing for change. Boulkheir has pushed for liberation for the Haratine pragmatically and by affirming their status as Arabs; the result is that increasing number of Moors are less hostile towards the anti-slavery movement in general because they no longer see it as a threat to Moorish hegemony in the country — and important moves against slavery have been made as a result, though these have hardly been as sweeping or satisfactory as many would like. At the large 17 April opposition rally, Boulkheir weighed in on the language issue very carefully, saying that Arabic is the language of the country and that the real problem in the country is the regime — which was widely taken as a reaffirmation of his party’s Arabist leanings.
4. One should also consider what kinds of risks the status quo poses Mauritania in general. Not only does the current system privilege francisants at the expense of arabisants (almost all of Mauritania’s presidents, chiefs of staff and prime ministers have been francisants). The private sector and administration are heavily francisant while the military is increasingly arabisant; the religious sphere (both the Islamist movement and the traditional religious elite) is thoroughly arabisant as well. One will recall the prominent role that Islamists played in organizing protests among Arab students and the spirited defense of Arabic Jamil Ould Mansour (head of Tawassoul, the local Muslim Brotherhood chapter) offered up, saying that “there is no dispute” about Arabic being the official language of Mauritania and that he refuses to “raise the banner that says French will remain the language of the administration”; he further stated that he saw no problem with the current educational system. His party further took the position that French is a colonial language and that the country should institutionalize Arabic and move away from divisive language like “Arabization” and “Westernizaton”. Later, in a television interview, he said that national identity (i.e., Arabic) should be a “red line” and that French should be “gradually pushed out of the administration.” His comments were generally measured but he has been accused of “ambiguity” and insensitivity by some Afro-Mauritanians. (See here for the text of an interview with Mansour on the Arabization issue.) Many arabisants agree with these sentiments, but some would go farther and would put them in less friendly terms. Many of the protests have been organized by Islamist or Ba’thist student agitators, which speaks to some of the theses here.
As in other parts of the Maghreb (particularly Algeria and Morocco), arabisants have been attracted to the Islamist tendency more than francisants. They tend to be overrepresented in religious circles and the Arab national movement. Mauritanian sources believe most (if not all) the young men arrested or killed in connect with AQIM have been arabisants. There is no causal relationship between Arabization and terrorism (as some have tried to argue) and Mauritania’s language problem is not as severe as in Algeria, for instance. But the sense of disenfranchisement that many arabisants feel is potentially dangerous and it is important that alienation coming from the language problem not be allowed to become destabilizing. Additionally the discrimination and insecurity felt by many black francisants must be addressed for similar reasons.
Mauritania is officially an Arabic-speaking country, yet many feel, as is argued in this op-ed, that the country benefits from bilingualism and could do better if all Mauritanians learned Arabic but also were obliged to learn French or English “to produce [Mauritanians] able to function in international institutions, as we want to be present in the world through our ideas.” The author cites the examples of Tunisia and Egypt as countries where citizens learn Arabic and foreign languages (French and English for instance) and do well (on that Egypt is a questionable example). One hears arguments similar to this in many parts of the Maghreb, and they usually offer little consolation to young men educated in Arabic who cannot find jobs. The government has not taken significant moves in the wake of the protests