Controversy around a Mauritanian Atheist

Reportedly (Arabic), A Mauritanian man recently professed atheism on Facebook. I haven’t been able to find the original page, but the incident has caused controversy in the country. The government’s High Council for Fatwa and Grievances released a statement (Arabic) announcing “our distress and our disapproval” of the man’s words and calling for legal action against him.

This incident is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged unbelief, apostasy, or blasphemy in Mauritania. 2014 saw a wave of such events. One man was jailed in January and then sentenced to death in December for writing an online article perceived as blasphemous. Another man was arrested for allegedly urinating on a copy of the Qur’an in February 2014, while March 2014 saw protests over an incident in which a small group of men allegedly desecrated copies of the Qur’an. Those events were seemingly unconnected, but coming in rapid succession they elevated tensions around issues of apostasy and blasphemy.

Other events have had a more political tinge. Also last year, Mauritanian religious scholars accused leftist writers of spreading atheism. In 2012, the anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Abeid publicly burned texts from the Maliki legal school (one of Sunni Islam’s four major schools, and the one most widespread in northwest Africa) in protest at the ways in which such texts had been invoked to justify slavery. The burning triggered protests and resulted in his arrest. It’s important to note that burning Maliki texts is categorically different from desecrating a Qur’an, and that Ould Abeid was not making a symbolic gesture of unbelief but rather was attempting to confront and overturn a certain interpretation of tradition.

In any case, the point is that accusations of blasphemy can be directed at both isolated individuals and opposition movements. Also, the issue has become sensitive enough that even one individual’s Facebook posts can elicit a government response.

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