Mauritania is grappling with a range of fundamental issues, including religion, development, political and social progress and institution building. After the August 3 bloodless military coup that toppled Mauritania’s autocratic president Maaouiya Ould Taya, the country reached a critical juncture in both its efforts to deal with Sunni Islamic activism and its on-again, off-again flirtation with political reform. Whether the country can come together and reconcile the principles of tradition with modernity is still hard to tell, but the success or failure to develop stable religious and political institutions capable of dealing with the challenges of development, economic changes and radicalism will, as much as anything, determine the fate of radical Islamic activists.
The current structural predicament of the Mauritanian state stems from the unresolved contentious debate over the nature of political and religious authority. Since its independence in 1960, the Mauritanian state has managed to produce neither a coherent political order nor ground its rule in either modern, rational-legal, or traditional legitimacy. Seeking to shore up its Islamic credentials, the state under successive presidencies encouraged the spread of Salafi ideas without seeming to appreciate that such a stance risked diluting its monopoly on Islamic interpretation. The state supported the ideological and motivational sources of Islamic radicalism by providing apolitical radicals like Bouddah Ould Bousseyri and Mohamed Salem Ould Addoud with overall political and strategic guidance, gratifying their wishes and supporting their proselytizing missions inside the country .
It was the state’s own policies of Islamization and Arabization which served as a strong impetus for the growth of religious and political activism . The Arabization of education, for example, necessitated the importation of teachers from Egypt and the Near East. These scholars exercised considerable influence on the introduction, reform and interpretation of Islamic laws. They also provided the needed ideological depth for the upsurge in the Arabist/Islamist trend in Mauritania. Islamism also thrived thanks to the financial donations and incentives coming out from the Persian Gulf, particularly from Saudi Arabia. The latter funded mosques, Islamic study centers, and madrasas to propagate its own rigid and intolerant version of Islam. Some of the institutions sustained by Saudi oil money became conduits for material and ideological support to radical Islamists.
The number of radical Islamist sympathizers in the country is very small though growing in number, especially in urban areas,  and this is due in part to the corrupt policies of the ruling elites, the abortion of the democratic experiment launched in 1991, and the state’ racist and discriminatory policies towards Haratines (the former slave stratum) . But contrary to the regime’s depiction of Islamists as uniform zealous ideologues and its obstinate refusal to recognize the variability and non-violent essence of their doctrinal outlook, it is the political tendency of Sunni activism that has gone furthest, thus acknowledging the need for the establishment of a democratic government. Despite their different readings of religion, different understanding of the dialectic of tradition and modernity and disparate political visions, Mauritanian Islamic political activists have come the closest to recognizing that the best way to rationalize the political culture is by first rationalizing the religious culture of the Islamic movements.
Far from being a fixed ideological monolith existing outside history and in opposition to modernity and democracy, Islamism does not and cannot constitute a single coherent entity because different historical, cultural and social contexts and realities make for different Islamisms. Understanding the dynamics of the competing and sometimes contradictory discourses on any given issue requires an appreciation of the diversity of the contemporary Mauritanian Islamic experience.
Mauritanian Islamism is driven largely by three distinct types of activism: political, missionary, and jihadi. The political movement is less cohesive in membership, consisting of small groups that formed through the construction of alliances between a few eminent personalities like Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour and Mokhtar Ould Mohamed Moussa, former ambassador to Syria . Each group tries to expand its popular base and political clout through identification or affiliation with well-known ideological movements like the Muslim Brothers or personalities like the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi and Sudanese Hassan al-Turabi . Most political Islamists envision acquiring political power through peaceful means and prioritize objectives directed at the coordination of strategic and operational issues between the three main variants of Sunni activism (i.e. political, missionary and jihadi). Attempts to unify the Islamist movement have all ended in failure because of the highly diffuse nature of the movement and the hostility of the apolitical branches of Sunni activism to political Islamists .
Another major reason accounting for the failed attempts to strengthen and unify the Islamist movement are the stringent rules governing the establishment of associations, organizations and political parties. Since the 1991 opening up of the political system, the regime exhibited a marked suspicion of the Islamists and a reluctance to take serious steps in easing restrictions on political parties for fear that genuine democracy would displace the political prerogatives of the ruling regime. The result has been the shutting out of the Islamists from the constitutional process.
The second type of Islamic activism is the da’wa (missionary) current. It is represented by Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya (scholarly or scientific Salafism) and the most structured movement in Mauritania, Tabligh . The Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya current is best exemplified by such prominent radical figures like Taki Ould Mohamed Abdellahi and Mohamed el Hacen Ould Dedew. The latter has gained prominence by his daring challenge and criticism of the regime and his fatwas denouncing relations with Israel and consumption of American goods. Both Ould Dedew and Mohamed Abdellahi call for the restoration of the Shari’ah and encourage jihad against the West to free all Muslim land under foreign occupation . They preach a culture of intolerance that suppresses all discourses of dissent. Other Wahhabis include the Tadjakant, the first importers of Wahhabism to Mauritania .
The Tabligh movement, launched in India in 1926 by the Jama’at al-Da’wa wal-Tabligh (Group for Preaching and Propagation), took root in Mauritania in the early 1990s. Like Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya, it is fundamentalist in its doctrinal outlook, eschews politics, and is primarily concerned with the preservation of the Islamic faith and moral order in Mauritanian society.
The jihadi tendency is the third type of Islamic activism. Unlike the political and missionary current, jihadi activists advocate the use of violence and armed resistance against what they perceive as the continuing onslaught of the enemies of Islam. The latter can be “impious” rulers (the near enemy) or non-Muslim “infidels” (the far enemy), especially Israel and the United States. This form of Islamic activism has very few mujahideen or sympathizers though it is actively involved in trying to recruit more followers from members of Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya who have grown more disenchanted by the rapprochement of the regime with Israel. Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya is the most likely group of Islamic activism to forsake the non-violent activism of the da’wa and engage in “defensive jihad” against domestic rulers and the West.
All these three different types of Islamist activism are a response to internal authoritarianism and external (i.e. foreign) manipulation. Islam provides two channels of response to these challenges: islah (reform) and tajdid (renewal). The former represented by the political current of the Mauritanian Islamist movement is a proactive approach that responds warmly to the prospect of spreading technological, scientific and democratic norms into Mauritanian society, believing that some aspects of modernity do not conflict with the established values and principles of Islamic law. The latter is a reactive approach, exemplified by the da’wa and jihadi tendencies, which in their search of indigenization, authenticity, and freedom, turn toward nativism and in the case of the jihadi current into jihadism.
Political Islamists are mainly preoccupied with government corruption and social injustice. They see the contesting of elections as the best means to achieve power and redress the inefficiencies of the state. They disapprove of the missionary activists’ obsession with individual behavior at the expense of more important issues. Da’wa activists strive to restore the Islamic identity and moral fabric of Mauritanian society and challenge the state’s monopoly on religion and the official religious establishment’s interpretive authority. Their discourse of cultural authenticity tries to tap into the collective anger and frustration of so many Mauritanians with the failure of the state. Missionary Islamists are highly critical of political Islam which they see as a perversion of religion. Like the da’wa activists, jihadists condemn political Islamists as defeatists for seeking to exploit religion for political purposes and accommodate modernity within Islam. The jihadists’ entire political philosophy is based on the belief that contemporary Mauritanian society has returned to jahiliya (a state of ignorance and unbelief that preceded the revelation of Islam).
These competing factions of Islamic activists are engaged in a struggle among themselves and against state authoritarianism over the essence and direction of the Mauritanian state. There is no doubt that the consequences of this momentous battle between conflicting ideologies over the meaning of Islam and the essence of a legitimate political order are of historical significance for the Mauritanian state and its relations with the West.
1. Rahal Bobrik, “Pouvoir et homes de religion en Mauritania” Politique Africaine, number 70, June 1998, pp. 135-143. Ould Bousseyri is a close associate of the regime. He is a supporter of Wahhabi Islam and a very influential figure in the apolitical Islamist camp. For several decades, he had been imam of the grand mosque of Nouakchott built by Saudi money. Ould Addoud advocates an ultra-conservative form of Islam. He was Minister of Culture and director of the High Islamic Council. He is critical of political Islamists and very supportive of the regime.
2. A. W. Ould Cheikh: “Cherche élite désespérément. Évolution du système éducatif et (dé) formation des élites dans la société mauritanienne,” in Pierre Bonte & Hélène Claudot-Hawad (dir.), Élites du monde touareg et maure, Les cahiers de l’IREMAM, (Aix en Provence:Edisud, 2000), number 13-14.
3. Adriana Piga, Islam et villes en Afrique au sud du Sahara: entre soufisme et fondamentalisme (Paris: Karthala, 2003).
4. “L’Islamisme en Afrique du Nord IV: Contestation Islamiste en Mauritanie: Menace ou Bouc Émissaire?” Rapport Moyen-Orient/Afrique du Nord Number 41, May 11 2005, p. 19.
5. “L’Islamisme en Afrique du Nord IV: Contestation Islamiste en Mauritanie: Menace ou Bouc Émissaire?” pp. 20-21.
6. Ibid. p. 16.
7. The first setback came in 1991 when efforts to create the movement of Umma ended in failure. The second attempt came in 2003-2004.
8. On Salafiyya, see Ahmed Ould Cheikh: “Le mouvement islamiste en Mauritanie: gros plan” in Le Calame number 394, May 28 2003.
9. “L’Islamisme en Afrique du Nord IV: Contestation Islamiste en Mauritanie : Menace ou Bouc Émissaire?” p. 16.
10. Ibid. p. 15.