Last week, I wrote about Mauritanian authorities’ decision to close Markaz Takwin al-Ulama, or the Center for the Training/Formation of Islamic Scholars. The school is run by Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, a prominent Islamist cleric in Mauritania and beyond.
As one might expect, the closure has elicited criticism from Islamists within Mauritania. I was a bit surprised (though I should not have been) that the issue reverberated beyond Mauritania as well.
Here are some of the reactions.
Al-Dedew sent an audio message to supporters and students of the Markaz:
Employees of the Markaz protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott, stressing the school’s international and scholastic character:
The staff also went to court:
In Burkina Faso, the Salafi association Daawatoul Islamia (The Islamic Call) denounced the closure and, interestingly, attributed it to authorities’ anger at al-Dedew’s criticisms of Saudi Arabia (h/t Louis Audet-Gosselin, whose tweet about this Facebook entry inspired my blog post):
The Moroccan Islamist association Movement for Unity and Reform (Harakat al-Tawhid wa-l-Islah) also released a statement (Arabic original, French summary) criticizing the closure.
Some Mauritanian actors, meanwhile, took more complex positions. The ex-al-Qa’ida cleric Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Muritani, who returned to Mauritania in 2012 and became a prominent scholar) met with various actors in the debate, including the president, and issued a statement on his Facebook page. The statement argued that the closure was not part of a “general government policy” toward Islam or Islamic institutions, but rather was “an individual issue.” Ould al-Walid went on to say, however, that he and others had asked the president to reconsider the decision and reopen the school. (The statement is much more complex than that, though, in both its argumentation and its politics, and it merits its own blog post.)
Finally, I should point to the response of more official, government-leaning ulama in Mauritania. Two bodies – the National Union of Mauritanian Imams and the League of Mauritanian Ulama – released a statement that praised what they called “tangible services and achievements in the Islamic field” under the president’s leadership. The statement went on to say, without mentioning the Markaz, that “the modern institutes have not succeeded in graduating/producing any scholar from our society since their founding and up to today.” The struggle over the Markaz, in such scholars’ view, is not just a political battle between the government and Islamists but also an epistemological battle over the status and transformation of the Mauritanian mahdara (classical Islamic school).
A potential footnote in the putative Reformation this episode is nevertheless currently very germaine, and your observation of the epistemological battle is no understatement. The good burghers of Timbuktu would also vouch for that. I think it is the sense that Muslims should consider it their duty to vote for a particular party that crosses the line for AbdelAziz, almost a fatwa, and in this sense perhaps he is doing what he believes is best for the country. One has to draw a line sometimes, and at least it was done after the elections (had been won) not in the heat of the campaign, and that itself is quite honourable.