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.