Mauritanian Imams and Government Control

From Magharebia’s Jemal Oumar comes an interesting article on the Mauritanian government’s new program for training imams:

Mauritanian authorities kicked off a month-long training programme for imams at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Nouakchott last week as part of a push to encourage moderate beliefs.

[…]

More than a hundred imams are expected to take part in the programme. The Islamic affairs ministry said they “will receive presentations and training on topics in various areas relating to the interests of the people and management of their religious and daily life removed from extremism and delinquency”.

Mohamed Lemin Ould Emahoud, President of the National Union of Imams in Mauritania, praised the government support, saying that the training session was the “fruit of a programme of ambitious co-operation between the Union of Imams and the ministry to organise more training sessions for imams with an aim toward expanding their scholarly horizons in the performance of their noble mission”.

Participants in the seminar said it was important to educate imams so that they understand modern issues, including the threat of terrorism.

I am not surprised to see a program like this. Given its struggle with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Mauritanian government has a clear interest in trying to control the field of Islamic discourse in the country. Training imams – and therefore attempting to manage their pronouncements to some extent – is a logical place to intervene, given that other areas, like the internet, are less amenable to central control.

But I worry sometimes about the word “moderation,” because it seems to be used so often as a cudgel against Muslims, in a game whose rules are controlled by governments or outsiders, and which Muslims cannot win. For example, when American conservatives ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” over and over again, I get the sense that the question is not meant to be answered concretely, but rather to be used as a rhetorical weapon to define “good” and “bad” Muslims. So what does “moderation” mean in Mauritania? Presumably the government and almost all imams can agree on the goal of countering extremism, but if it is the government that defines “moderation,” that definition could quickly rule out non-violent forms of religio-political dissidence. On the whole it seems that these kind of efforts in Mauritania are a good complement to the use of force against AQIM, but the political consequences of this kind of government supervision could be larger than anticipated.

True, Mauritania has a decades-long tradition of government involvement in Islamic affairs, but that involvement has sometimes produced a backlash, or at least greater activism than the government has desired (for example, many of the country’s leading non-violent Islamists are products of government institutions of higher Islamic learning, yet the Ould Taya regime spent a lot of time jailing those Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s). So perhaps it is best to say that the government has a balancing act to perform here: looser government involvement in the training of imams could allow violent ideologies to proliferate, but overly tight government control in this area could generate resentments and backlash.

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