Comments and Observations on the “Arabization Crisis”

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


One thought on “Comments and Observations on the “Arabization Crisis”

  1. Arabization poses a threat to all Muslims who believe in Islam’s divine character and universalism, and can be combated only by them. It is not a crisis between civilizations as Huntington would have us believe, but a crisis within civilization and can be fought from within.
    Arabization’s major appeal emanates from Islam’s millenary expectations and the unfounded utopia of a just and prosperous society under Islamic rule. This is also fed by the silence of the moderates in the face of the more vocal minority trying to hijack Islam for their perverted gain. Christianity has passed through this phase and the contradictions between the sacred and the profane was resolved by separating the church from the state during the period of renaissance and reformation. If the powerful, modern, ideas of ‘jehadi’ Islamism are not met in the marketplace of ideas with an equally vigorous, contemporary, articulation of peaceful, syncretic and inclusive Islam, then ‘the center of gravity’ of public discourse will inevitably slide towards those ideas that appear most powerful and relevant to the modern world.
    Indonesia, Anwar Ibrahim and Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, Surin Pitsuan in Thailand, who is now the current secretary general of ASEAN, and Ashgar Ali Engineer and many other progressive Muslim intellectuals in India, represent a powerful alternative to ‘jehadi’ Islamism.
    The need of the hour for the Muslims in Asia is to de-Arabize Islam from its exclusivist mould and promote a more inclusive Islam based on their own indigenous cultures and traditions blending with universal message of Islam, as were case in India and Indonesia in the period before the inroad of the Islam of the desert. There is also an urgent need for the moderates to break their deafening silence against tyranny of the small minority who are bringing shame and bad name to the religion and shed their inertia and fear of being branded as not ‘good Muslims’ by their perverted radical minority
    Fuelling the new Islamic identity is the steady process of transformation from a secular, inclusive and an adaptive Islam to a more textual, ritualistic and exclusive one by exogenous forces, as ideas, practices and finances flow from the Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The transformation brings about conflicts – not only within Islam as to its correct interpretation and desirable way of life, but also among Muslims andothers in otherwise tolera nt and harmonious plural societies like India and Sri Lanka, where Islam was renowned for its adaptability to local practices, tolerance of other religions and contribution to its composite culture.
    Over the past 30 years, however, Wahabi fundamentalists have tried to homogenize Islam, introducing new tensions.
    This process of homogenization could be referred as “Arabization” of Islam emphasizes rituals and code of conduct more than substance and Islam’s universalism. It stems from the “the Wahabi creed,” a rigid branch of Islam exported from and subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia.
    Wahhabism is distinct in its destructive nature when religion is used by the state for political ends. Unlike other traditions that accommodate dissenting views, the Wahhabis claim to possess an un-debatable version of ‘true Islam”. Arabization of Islam is a trend that somewhat obscure many Muslims from the real divine value of Islam. More importantly, a fundam ental transformation is taking place within the Muslim community all over the world – an identity formation based on a world view taken from early Quranic precepts and a code of conduct resembling a way of life that was prevalent in the Arab world in the mediaeval period in the formative stage of Islam.
    This form of identity is premised on an understanding and a belief that to be a true Muslim one has to be different from ‘others’ in every aspect of life and that there can not be a meeting ground between Islam and other religions.
    Adaptation of other customs, traditions and cultures in its path toward the expansion of the religion had only led to aberration and corruption of original and pristine ideas of Islam. It is only through the practice of mediaeval Arab traditions and way of life that the evil eyes of other religions can be kept at bay.
    Such a world view based on Arabization of Islam may not be the most predominant among the Muslims of the world yet, but is surely gaining slow and steady ground. A strong sense of grievance and victim mentality has reinforced Islam’s role as a medium for asserting identity. The external manifestation is the we aring of Middle Eastern clothes by men and women. Strict observance of fundamentalist Islam is al so a means of asserting identification with reform and protesting upper- class corruption in many societies, which might somewhat explain fundamentalists’ prescription for austere way of life free from temptations and pleasures.
    Since the original Muslims were mostly Arab, everything associated with them – their culture, names, and family structures – has been associated with Islam. But this presents a problem since the vast majority of Muslims in our current world are not Arab. There is not even an Arab monolithic form of Islam and culture. Some might even suggest that passing off Arab culture as Islam in this regard is inaccurate, exclusionary, and disrespectful of other Muslims’ cultures evolving through a blend of religious and local traditions and customs. This is where the use of the term ‘Arabization’ gains salience. Despite the fact that only a fraction of the Muslim community are Arabs, everywhere in South and Southeast Asia there is a growing trend of imitating and replicating Arab cultures and customs to prove their true Islamicidentity at the expense of their own rich syncretic cultures that allowed not only Islam to spread in the whole region but also harmonious inter-faith interactions. Converts to Islam illustrate the issue poignantly. Having an Arab name makes one seem more “Muslim,” because of the way Arab culture is seenas synonymous with Islam. Clothing is another, mostly affecting Muslim women. The ‘niqab’ (the face-veil) was rarely seen outside of the Arabian world until recently. Most Muslims see the niqab as a byproduct of Arab culture. The urge for a Muslims to wear veils can be traced from a Quranic perception “to wear their veils over their bosoms”. The Prophet wa s urging modesty, not necessarily a particular dress-code. It is only recently that the veil has been interpreted as religiously authentic instead of a cultural expression and therefore a must for all Muslim women.
    Arabic language has an important role in the diffusion of this process. Language inevitably imposes cognitive categories that force an individual into a particular symbolic order in thinking, communicating, and the ordering of his experience. Arabic’s highly charged sacred character increases its coercive power, making it a “truth-language.” Arabic is the language of Islam, the language chosen by God to speak to mankind, influences how a person perceives the world and expresses reality. This, in turn, has a profound impact on a society’s outlook.
    Arabic and Islam are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Arabization and Islamization are inseparable parts of a single cultural ideal that now pervades the Arab world. In their drive toward authentification, and uniformization of Islam, the transmitters (Saudi Arabia and other
    Arabic countries) and the recipients (non-Arab Islamic societies) are equally emphasizing ‘Arabization’ as the norm of pure and ideal formof Islam to be followed by Muslims all over the world.
    In the Indian subcontinent, a thousand years of Muslim presence obviously brought a fusion between it and an ancient deep-rooted civilization with its in-built strength and resilience. Like in other societies, Islam in India had to adapt to local beliefs, customs and cultures. The end result was a flowering of a composite culture to which Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims both contributed.
    Popular religion, in many places, consisted of myriad cults of diverse origins, incorporating Sufi, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ elements. With the advent of Wahhabi movement and the opening up of Deobandi schools, the syncretic Islam in Indian subcontinent came under pressure from the proponents of orthodox Arab form of Islam. As a consequence all customs that were ‘un-Islamic’ were seen as aberration and therefore to be shunned by all means, and the individual believer must consciously strive to mould himself consciously on the model of the Prophet, presented in a form that was inextricably related to 7th century Arab culture.
    During the 1970s, Wahhabi clerics encouraged the spread of their ideology into Saudi universities and mosques, because it was seen as a barrier to the threat of cultural Westernization and spread of corruption that accompanied the 1970s oil boom.
    Consequently, the Saaudi royal family and their religious establishment looked for a cause with which to deflect the growing zealotry from Wahhabist theofascism, a danger highlighted by the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by heavily armed Islamic Studies students in 1979. The diversion that the royal family seized upon was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Wahhabism gained considerable influence in the Muslim world following a tripling in the price of oil in the mid-1970s. Having the world’s largest reserves of oil but a relatively small population, Saudi Arabia was in a position to spend tens of billions of dollars throughout the Muslim world promoting Islam, and in particular Wahhabism, which was sometimes referred to as “petro-Islam”. Its largess funded an estimated “90% of the expenses of the entire faith,” throughout the Muslim world. It extended to young and old, from children’s madrassas to high level scholarship.
    “Books, scholarships, fellowships, mosques” were paid for. It rewarded journalists and academics who followed it; built satellite campuses around Egypt for Al Azhar, the oldest and very influential Islamic university. The financial power of Wahhabist advocates has done much tooverwhelm less strict local interpretations of Islam, and has caused the Saudi interpretation to be perceived as the “gold standard” of religion in many Muslims’ minds.
    Saudis had spent some $90 billion, according to one estimate, to export Wahhabism globally. Much of this Saudi funding went towards the establishment of Wahhabi-dominated religious schools, colleges, and other social and cultural infrastructure, while in non-Muslim countries alone, the Saudis financed the construction of some 2,000 schools, 1,500 mosques, and 210 Islamic centers between 1982 and 2002.
    Saudi financial power also means that it can control key Muslim publishing houses, promoting Wahhabi texts and ensuring the suppression of Sufi, Shi’a, and other Muslim works now deemed non-Islamic. It also supports the training of imams and endowments to universities (in
    exchange for influence over the appointment of Islamic scholars). The lack of a formal ecclesiastical hierarchy within Sunni Islam renders traditional religious institutions weak in the face of well-funded Wahhabi missionary activities. In Batticaloa, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Thailand, Wahhabis have co-opted (or replaced) village and neighborhood imams, and there is a fresh stream of converts returning from stays as guest workers in Saudi Arabia. The children of poor converts are often taken to Saudi Arabia for “education” and many are returned as cannon fodder for use by Wahhabi terrorist fronts. In India, efforts are underway to capture a portionof huge Muslim minority. In Southern part of India, even a few years ago, one could not distinguish between a Hindu and a Muslim from
    either his dress or language. Once the Muslims from Southern India started going to the Gulf countries for jobs, many of them returned getting acculturated to the Arabic language, dress and customs, resulting in visual divide between the two communities. In India in recent years, a growing number of madrassas graduates have been enrolling in higher institutions of Islamic learning in the Arab world.
    This is particularly the case of graduates of educational institutions associated with the Jama’at-i Islami, the Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith, all three of which are fiercely opposed to a range of popular customary practices and preach forms of ‘Wahhabi’ Islam. Once they return to India, graduates of madrassas and Islamic universities in the Gulf States often go on to teach in madrassas or set up Islamic institutions of their own on a form of Islam that they have imbibed during their years of study in the Arab world. Such institutions publish literature, in Urdu, English, Hindi and regional languages, opposing many aspects of poplar Indian Muslim culture, reiterating the notion that key aspects of medieval Arab culture are integral to their way of imagining Islam. The spate of bombings in Benaras, Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad and
    the suspected role of SIMI (Student Islamic Movement of India) demonstrates clearly how Islam has undergone transformation in India and the extent of indigenization of terror networks

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