On Mauritanian Authorities’ Closure of Markaz Tawkin al-Ulama

At a global level, one of Mauritania’s two most famous living Islamic scholars is Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew (the other is Abd Allah bin Bayyah). Ideologically, al-Dedew is most closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the Mauritanian Islamist party Tewassoul, although his theology and politics are not easy to classify; I myself have wavered on whether to classify him as a Salafi, given that his openness to warm relations with Sufis runs against the anti-Sufism that I usually associate with Salafism. Meanwhile, his relationship with organized Islamism is also complex, given that he is not a formal member of Tewassoul but rather a kind of spiritual mentor to Mauritania’s Islamist movement generally. The complexity of al-Dedew’s background and biography is also illustrated by his family lineage, which includes a maternal grandfather who was arguably the most famous traditionalist scholar of the early postcolonial period, and a maternal uncle who was a longtime government scholar and minister. So the sources of al-Dedew’s charisma and reputation are multiple and even somewhat in tension – he drew on family prestige even as he emerged as a political dissident, especially during the period when Mauritania had relations with Israel (1999-circa 2009).

Al-Dedew is also a participant in a loose movement to “modernize” the Mauritanian mahdara. The mahdara is a traditionalist institution that teaches Islamic sciences, centered on Islamic jurisprudence and Arabic grammar but including other disciplines as well. A range of Mauritanian shaykhs of different theological and political persuasions, but mostly based in Nouakchott and a few other Mauritanian cities, have been experimenting with efforts to update and streamline the mahdara, allowing students to reduce their length of study while obtaining formal degrees (proponents of the traditionalist mahdara, of course, might counter that there is no way to streamline the curriculum except through shortcuts). Al-Dedew’s own effort in this direction is Markaz Tawkin al-Ulama (The Center for Forming Islamic Scholars, founded 2009), located in Nouakchott. I visited it in fall 2017, where I was unsuccessful in meeting al-Dedew but where I did get an overview of the school’s curriculum and approach. During the same visit, critics of al-Dedew told me that the Islamist movement has failed to produce any other notable Islamic scholars and that the Markaz is his effort to cultivate a new generation of scholars for the movement.

On 24 September, Mauritanian authorities closed the Markaz, accusing it of spreading extremism. The closure is part of a longer story of highly variable relations between al-Dedew and successive Mauritanian regimes, as well as highly variable relations between regimes and the Mauritanian Islamist movement as a whole. Major crackdowns came in 1994 and 2003, and al-Dedew himself has been imprisoned before. At other times, however, regimes have not just tolerated Islamism (for example, by giving legal recognition to Tewassoul in 2007) but also worked with al-Dedew, most notably by involving him in dialogues with imprisoned jihadists and accused jihadists starting in 2010. There were tensions even then, of course, but it seemed in recent years that the administration of current President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz was breaking with past policies of arresting major Islamists.

Reacting to the closure of the Markaz, al-Dedew has denied that any extremist views were taught there, and has called the closure “a surprise with no cause or justification.” Al Jazeera, at the link, also quotes from a Facebook post by the Markaz’s deputy director Mahfouz Ibrahim Ould Vall, but I could not find the original post on his page.

I honestly don’t know what prompted the closure, but it’s hard not to view it in the context of the recent legislative elections in which the ruling party did quite well and in which Tewassoul was solidly in second place. The closure perhaps comes as the regime’s reminder to Tewassoul and to al-Dedew in particular that the regime is in charge of the country and will only tolerate dissent to a certain point. One could also, in this vein, point to debates among the Mauritanian ulama, from a few months ago (May-June), concerning the possibility of a third term bid by Ould Abd al-Aziz. Whereas longtime government-aligned scholars explicitly endorsed the idea, the Markaz’s Ould Vall (speaking, I assume, for al-Dedew as well as for himself) said that the president should serve only two terms, i.e. should step down in 2019. Ould Abd al-Aziz has not publicly declared any intention to run in 2019, but various constituencies (perhaps with his permission or encouragement) are already calling for it, and so the debate has already been initiated in the public sphere. It would not be a stretch, then, to view the closure of the Markaz as an early move by the regime as it prepares to more openly lay the groundwork for a third term.

Some observers have suggested that there may be something to the charges of extremism against al-Dedew. Personally I’m highly skeptical that al-Dedew has any organizational links to any jihadists, although it’s worth noting that the way al-Dedew talks about jihadism (for example, about jihadism in northern Mali) is relatively mainstream in the Mauritanian context but would shock a lot of Western observers. What’s “radical,” then, is partly in the eye of the beholder.

More broadly, though, I wonder whether the closure of the Markaz is a sign that Mauritanian policy on jihadism is shifting. I think some of Mauritania’s success in avoiding jihadist attacks since 2011 is predicated on the regime not arresting, imprisoning, and torturing Muslim scholars and preachers – the crackdowns of the 1990s and the early 2000s were explicitly cited by some young Mauritanian jihadists as grievances that fueled their desire to attack within Mauritania. The argument, to be clear, is not that al-Dedew is involved in extremism, but that if young Mauritanian hardliners see the regime targeting figures such as al-Dedew, they may get angry enough to stage attacks in Mauritania again. So arguments about cause and effect – does targeting al-Dedew forestall or encourage violence – can run in multiple directions, depending on how one views these dynamics. If I’m right, though, then the authorities must be calculating that they’re ready to pay the price of angering some young hardliners, and that the benefits for the regime of targeting al-Dedew outweigh any risks that action may generate.