For some time now I have been following the Mauritanian Salafi Sheikh Muhammad al Hasan Ould Dedew and the country’s Islamist Tewassoul Party, for which Sheikh Dedew acts as a spiritual mentor. One important aspect of Islamist activism in Mauritania is Islamists’ deep concern with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This concern has taken the form of protests, including pressure on the Mauritanian government to break ties with Israel (Mauritania recognized Israel in 1999 and suspended relations in 2009), and in the form of trips by Mauritanian Islamist delegations to Palestine. For example, Tewassoul’s Vice President Mohamed Ghoulam Ould Hadj was on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010.
I was therefore interested to read in the Mauritanian press (Arabic) about a convoy recently organized in part by Mauritania’s National League for the Assistance of the Palestinian People. The convoy’s members traveled to Gaza earlier this month to distribute aid and attend events such as the December 8 rally celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hamas’ founding. The convoy included Sheikh Dedew, as head of the delegation, Ould Hadj (who heads the League), and Saleh Ould Hannena of the Hatem Party (Arabic; Wikipedia bio here). Worth noting is that both Hamas and Tewassoul have roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The delegation returned to Mauritania yesterday. You can read a first-person account of the first leg of the trip here (Arabic), and more coverage of the return (with photographs) here (Arabic). The press refers to the delegation as the “Shinqit Convoy 3,” suggesting there were two previous delegations, though I have not been able to find references to them online.
This video contains interviews, in Arabic, with participants in the convoy, including Ould Hadj, a student leader, and others. I have embedded Sheikh Dedew’s speech at the Hamas rally below.
I have no major analytical point to make about the convoy – and I am not trying to gin up any alarm over Tewassoul’s contact with Hamas. My interest is in three issues: (1) how different Muslim movements and communities respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even in places the international media often treats as peripheral; (2) how Tewassoul’s activism on Palestine relates to its broader position within Mauritanian domestic politics; and (3) how Sheikh Dedew frames his interventions on the Palestine issue, and how this issue relates to his broader self-presentation as a religious leader. The convoy is one data point to consider in thinking about those questions.
Amid Mali’s ongoing crisis, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed to send some 3,000 troops there to help Malian government forces retake the Islamist-held north. Other external actors, such as France, have indicated that they would support such an intervention logistically. Talk of interventions is drawing reactions within Mali but also from its neighbors.
Reactions in Mauritania, Mali’s neighbor to the west, are worth watching. Mauritania sent troops into northern Mali on several occasions in 2010 and 2011 pursuing fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This August, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz stated that his country will not intervene militarily in Mali. Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS. Last week, Abdel Aziz met with General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, to discuss the potential for intervention in Mali, but few details of the meeting are publicly available.
Some constituencies inside Mauritania strongly oppose an external intervention. One such constituency is the segment of Islamists represented by the political party Tewassoul (“The National Rally for Reform and Development”; Arabic site here). Yesterday, the party released a statement against intervention in Mali (Arabic). The statement partly blames Abdel Aziz’s regime for the current crisis in Mali, and has several key planks, paraphrased here:
- The party supports the territorial integrity of Mali.
- The party calls on neighboring countries, the African Union, and the United Nations to support negotiations and a non-violent solution to the crisis.
- The party warns of “disastrous and negative consequences for the region as a whole from any foreign intervention guided by Western countries on the basis of their agenda and their interests.”
- The party opposes any Mauritanian support, military or logistical, for a military intervention in Mali.
Mauritanian Islamists are far from being the dominant political players in the country – in the last presidential elections, Tewassoul’s candidate Jamil Mansour placed fourth in the official results, with around 5% of the vote – yet they have at times acted as a significant pressure group, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Analysts have cited Islamists’ street demonstrations and political mobilization as a factor in prompting Mauritania’s decision to suspend relations with Israel in 2009. Mauritanian Islamists have been effective in articulating popular sentiments against forms of perceived neo-colonialism in Mauritania and the region.
Tewassoul’s statement, then, has significance for understanding how Islamists of different stripes are reacting to the situation in Mali and how the issue is playing out in Mauritanian domestic politics. I don’t want to overstate the influence Tewassoul has, especially over Abdel Aziz. But Tewassoul may have some success mobilizing around this cause.
Magharebia published an article several days ago about Mauritanian youth and jihadist websites:
Since the As-Sahab Foundation, al-Jahafel, al-Andalus Media and other websites linked to al-Qaeda organisations are now readily accessible throughout the capital city, parents have begun monitoring their children’s activities and online friendships.
“I noticed a change in my son,” Alnina Mint Al-Nahi, tells Magharebia about 16-year-old Al-Saalek. “Especially in his daily addiction to watching religious channels, to the point of becoming furious when we wanted to watch news or entertainment programmes. He even accused us as being misguided,” the 52-year-old says.
“Facing my son’s hard-line behaviour, I decided to remove the television from the house once and for all, and that led him to replace it with an addiction to internet cafes,” she continues. “This is causing me to fear his falling into the hands of extremist groups.”
In the Arafat neighbourhood of Nouakchott, many young people endure idleness and poverty. And this makes them particularly susceptible to online recruiters.
The whole article is worth reading.
The argument that poverty leads to extremism is widely debated, but let’s leave it aside in favor of another issue: the relationship between non-violent Islamism and violent jihadism.Mauritania has both, which makes it a relevant case study.
It is interesting that the article singles out Arafat as a center for jihadist recruitment. Arafat is the neighborhood that elected Jamil Mansour as its mayor in 2001; Mansour is today Mauritania’s leading Islamist politician. Mansour and his fellow mainstream Islamist leaders denounce jihadi violence, and it is tempting to conclude that in a neighborhood where political Islam is clearly a force, Islamism is a (the most?) compelling and constructive alternative to jihadism for youth. In other words, the youth reached by Mansour’s Tewassoul party may be less likely to join jihadi movements than the politically unaffiliated.
This is speculation, and I would need data to back the theory up. But the point is that Islamism is not necessarily the first step to extremism. For many it can be a completely different path.