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Fears of rising religious extremism in tolerant democracy

[Mauritania] The main mosque in Nouakchott- Mauritania adopted Islam as the state religion in 1991.
The main mosque in Nouakchott- Mauritania adopted Islam as the state religion in 1991 (IRIN)

An attack on the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania on 1 February and two other high-profile attacks since December have thrown into question the country’s future as a modernising, tolerant Islamic Republic.

Mauritanians say the attacks are symptoms of a steady radicalisation of society that has been evident since a succession of highly repressive governments was ended with the installation of reformers in a 2005 coup.

“Religious sentiment in Mauritania has become much stronger [since the coup], similar now to many Arab countries,” said Professor Yahya Ould Al-Bara, an anthropologist at the University of Nouakchott.

In the latest attack, the façade of the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott - the site of frequent protests against Israel's policies in the Middle East - was sprayed with a machine gun in the early hours of the morning. Three people leaving a nearby nightclub were wounded.

In December, four French tourists and three Mauritanian soldiers were shot dead by men accused of belonging to the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb terrorist group.

Mauritanians are traditionally tolerant Sunni Moslems, who from 1984 to 2005 under the rule of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya were forced by the state to adhere to an official government-condoned form of Islam.

Then, Islamists were viewed as a political threat and suspected militants were dealt with harshly, and the state made pains to be seen as welcoming to Arab but also American money, in 1999 becoming the only country in the Maghreb region to host an Israeli Embassy.

But in 2005 Ould Taya was ousted in a military coup, and following a period of military rule, in March 2007 the country held its first democratic election in 47 years, bringing in Ould Sidi Mohamed Cheikh Abadallahi as president.


Abdallahi is credited with introducing a more religiously tolerant, open form of government. Associations were allowed to form once again and an Islamist political party, the Rally for National Reform and Development (RNRD), was authorised.

Tuning in

Until the recent attacks, observers in Mauritania had measured the steady shift in their country's national character by the skyrocketing budget of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which reached $US12 million in 2008, and even the number of mosques in Nouakchott, which increased from 58 in 1989 to over 900 today, according to research by Al-Bara.

“I remember 20 years ago during [the Muslim holy month] Ramadan no-one fasted but today everyone does, or they are met with disapproval,” a government official told IRIN. “There are also more veiled women and more bearded men. We’ve let this develop without realising [it].”

Increasingly, people are using satellite television – ubiquitous all around the vast, Saharan country and especially in the vast slums that ring Nouakchott’s sandy centre – to tune in to Arab channels with debates on Jihad [Holy War] and analyses on the whereabouts of fugitive al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Mauritanians say.

Islamists in the country regularly launch Internet campaigns to denounce secularism in society, and in 2006 they convinced the government to cancel the ‘Miss Mauritania’ beauty contest, on the grounds that it contravened Shari’a Law.

Ahmed Ould Sabar, Vice-Imam of the Mosque of Charoufa in Nouachkott, said the terrorist’s message is getting through loud and clear, with some young people even travelling abroad to train and fight.

“There are young people… who want to go to Jihad. It is our duty to put them in check,” he said.

The al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb terrorist group is accused of having recruited several Mauritanian youths into its training camps in the Sahara, a practice which has become more common since the democratisation of the country, one well-placed source told IRIN.


Nouakchott University’s Al-Bara puts the growth in religious fervour partly down to the influx of nomads from rural areas to the capital, which led many of them to congregate in groups for the first time, and high unemployment rates which mean many men have little to do other than pass the time drinking tea or at the mosque.

Photo: Nicholas Reader/IRIN
Children in the El Mina slum, outskirts of Nouakchott. The marginalised youth in the city's vast slums are a breeding ground for extremism, experts warn

According to 2006 World Bank figures, two-thirds of the working-age population are unemployed and almost half of Mauritanians live in poverty.

“With the detribalisation of society in towns the young have lost their place. Religion has become a refuge in which they are tempted to find the answers to their questions, which makes them vulnerable to extremist discourse,” Al-Bara said.

Madou Fall, a popular 27-year-old Mauritanian rapper said unemployment is turning this generation of Mauritanian youth into angry, alienated adults, as joblessness is blamed throughout West Africa for making unemployed youths the backbone of militia groups, rebel armies and criminal gangs from Nigeria to Côte d’Ivoire.

"There are no jobs, even when you leave [school] with a diploma, you do nothing, and there's no place for you in society,” Fall said. "It is normal that some will turn to extremism."

Straddling the two cultures of black Africa and Islamic North Africa, Mauritania has tense ethnic relations stained by a history of Arabs holding blacks as slaves for many years until the practice was abolished in 1981. The legacy of slavery in Mauritania is a large, marginalised and resentful part of the black population that could make a good breeding ground for terrorist groups, Crisis Group warned.

How to respond

For the country’s first democratic government, the possible rise of extremism may mean choosing between curtailing some of the freedoms the new leaders have ushered in, thereby cracking down on extremism and protecting moderates, or risking a growth in Islamic extremism.

“The government faces a choice between a more open politics and sudden demands for a more repressive style,” said a foreign diplomat in Nouakchott who asked not to be named.

President Abdallahi is under pressure from some within his own government and members of the former regime to curtail freedoms. 

A minister in the government of former President Ould Taya who does not wish to be named, told IRIN before the attack on the Israeli Embassy: "It has gone from one extreme to another in a very short time. Democracy has its limits – it cannot permit anything and everything, especially when the facts are known."

Photo: Nicholas Reader/IRIN
Mosques in Mauritania have been springing up since government control of religion was relaxed

That two of the men involved in the killing of the French tourists were released from jail in a trial ordered by Abdallahi’s government is being used by his opponents as ammunition.

But the President, who had promised in his inaugural speech to fight “without mercy” against terrorists and criminals, plays down the threat of burgeoning terrorism and remains adamant that he will not bow to pressure to restrict civil liberties.

“I understand the dissatisfaction of a portion of public opinion,” he said in a 23 January interview with French daily Le Monde. “We are doing as much as we can without lapsing into demagogy. I can tell you the pressure is on me to restrict civil liberties. But I refuse to do it.”

Asked by Le Monde if he regretted the decision to release the two prisoners, President Abdallahi said: “When we came into power in 2007 there were people who had languished in prison for more than two years without trial… The democratic system that we are trying to put in place cannot accept this.’’

Terrorist’s choice

The last large-scale suspected terrorist attack associated with the Islamic terrorists in Mauritania happened in June 2005 in the northeast of the country, killing 15 soldiers and wounding 39 others.

“Compared to what is happening elsewhere in the world, we can not say that Mauritania has become a country of choice for terrorists,” Abdallahi told Le Monde.

Nevertheless, government officials remain cognisant that internal threats could grow.

The Prime Minister’s Communications Councillor, Hindou Mint Amina, agreed that there has been a growing radicalisation of discourse among the young, and though it is too early to say if this has been captured in an organised framework, she warned: “I should not exclude the idea that this is possible one day."

For Professor Al-Bara meanwhile, the alarm bell has already sounded. “We must closely follow funding… and its potential links to religious activities. If not, Bin Laden’s discourse risks becoming more and more in vogue [in Mauritania].’’


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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