A Mauritanian Convoy to Gaza

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.

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Islamists vs. Jihadists: Gaza, Somalia, and Northern Nigeria

I’m traveling this week, so I’ve turned off comments and scheduled some posts that are more thematic than news-based. Next update will be Wednesday. – Alex

What are we to make of cases where Islamists come to power through elections, and then radical jihadists challenge their authority through violence?

  • In Gaza, Hamas recently fought with Jund Ansar Allah. This radical group declared the Strip an Islamic emirate and accused Hamas of not living up to Islamic ideals, even though a plurality of Gazans voted for Hamas partly because of the movement’s Islamic values.
  • In Somalia, the parliament elected President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a leader of the Union of Islamic Courts, in January 2009. Despite his decision to introduce shari’a, the hardline Islamists in al Shabab fight his government, claiming it does not represent true Islam.
  • In Nigeria, politicians imposed shari’a in Northern states after the elections of 1999, and many governors campaigned for re-election in 2003 on pro-shari’a platforms. Yet this summer, the Boko Haram movement launched a jihad, claiming the state was corrupted by westernization.

Why these commonalities? On most levels, the social and political situations in Nigeria, Gaza, and Somalia are very different. Nigeria has a functioning government, albeit one plagued by problems of corruption, rebellion, and insufficient services and infrastructure. Gaza suffers from a severe humanitarian crisis and foreign control but is mostly under the control of Hamas. Somalia would, I think, meet anyone’s definition of a failed state.

Islam Provides a Code for Expressing Political Disagreements

The common thread I see in these cases is that radicals take to violence as an expression of no confidence in the authorities. For different reasons in each case, rulers’ authority has weakened to the point where extremists openly challenge it.

I do not think Islam itself is the central factor in these confrontations; I think radicals challenge those in power on Islamic grounds because Islam has become part of the political language in these countries. Islam also provides a potent rallying cry for desperate people who have lost faith in the ability of governments to help constituents, establish justice, repel occupiers, or stabilize their countries.

A key question is whether authorities’ crackdowns on radical groups will permanently break them, given the underlying social problems. Leaving aside Somalia, where the Islamist-led government and jihadist rebels are fighting an all-out civil war, we find that the answer in Gaza and Northern Nigeria may be no. Rulers there face deep discontent. The Washington Post writes that the imposition of shari’a in Northern Nigeria has disappointed many – including, presumably, some of the Boko Haram recruits who believe Islamization of politics should go much further. Similarly, many are disappointed with Hamas’ rule in Gaza. That provides a clue as to why both Boko Haram and hardline Palestinian jihadists may continue to clash with Islamist authorities, and why Nigerian authorities are already working to break up other Islamic sects.