Differences rock salafist current in Mauritania
By Raby Ould Idoumou for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 15/06/12
Mauritanian salafists cannot agree on whether to follow their Maghreb neighbours into the political arena or reject democracy as an invention of infidels.
The issue has led to cracks in the movement, with extreme adherents of the salafist current vowing to mobilise against the proposal from their more moderate peers.
Ever since the salafist "El-Bir Association" began testing the waters last month about setting up a political party, hardliners who see participation in politics as "religious deviation" and "a breach of Sharia" have been quick to condemn the initiative.
"I refused to take part in it," salafist leader and mahdhara (religious school) teacher Mohamed Ould Mohamed al-Mokhtar (aka Abu Mariem) told Magharebia at his house in al-Riyadh neighbourhood in Nouakchott.
Abu Mariem interrupted his lesson to women wearing niqabs to say, "Democracy is akin to kufr and is against Sharia."
"We will try to thwart the plan to establish the party, and we'll launch a counter campaign to explain that Sharia is against democracy and political parties," he added. "This is because democracy divides people and sows discord."
Why, then, were some of his fellow salafists now eager to participate in politics and democratic change?
"It seems that the Arab Spring took away people's ideas, just as it did their rulers," he said.
Rabia Bint Mohamed Lamine, the first salafist female activist to write against democracy in the press is equally derisive about the efforts by some salafists to engage in politics. "For a long while now," Lamine said, "certain people have been working in hiding in an attempt to penetrate the salafist current using various schemes and attractions".
"Today, their new method has been exposed," she added. "Through democracy, they want to involve salafism into the political arena," but salafists reject "the constitutions of kufr, atheism and whim".
Another salafist source told Magharebia, "Leaders of the salafist current are now trying to save face because they have been lecturing and teaching people that democracy is kufr against God."
This suggests that in the wake of the Arab Spring, salafist sheikhs have had to conduct ideological revisions. Their discourse had become more isolated in view of political openness.
Mauritanian salafists began considering their own political party after they saw what happened to the political landscape in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. After Mauritanian salafists staged demonstrations against democracy and secularism, the media began talking about their possible entry into the political scene.
The idea was consolidated three weeks ago when several Mauritanian salafist leaders attended the second conference of the "League of Muslim Scholars" in Doha. Cheikh Mohammed Sidia Ould Ajdoud al-Naouaoui, a member of the League's High Commission, led the Mauritanian delegation to the two-day event.
At its conclusion on May 24th, the conference endorsed the establishment of Islamic political parties to "realise good and ward off evil".
In the closing communiqué, the league "stressed the need for Islamic parties to go for political alliances to realise consensus" and confirmed that women could take part in public affairs.
While the conference was the real start of an actual movement to create a salafist political party in Mauritania, the effort has seen strong rejection from the extreme wing of the current.
Another problem, explained Mauritanian analyst Zine El Abidine Ould Mohamed, is that while Maghreb salafists found in the Arab Spring an opportunity to engage in politics, they have not yet lost their narrow perspective.
Clear confirmation of what to expect from salafists' political strategy can found in the final statement of the League of Muslim Scholars, which stresses "the need to implement the Sharia in full and get people to accept it".
The "closing communiqué of the League will probably be the initial paper that Mauritania's salafists will use to establish their new party, but the party will be based on principles contrary to human values and equality," journalist Mohamed Ould Sid al-Mokhtar said.
To get a sense of how a political party would fare, members of El-Bir Association knocked on the doors of salafists in Nouakchott and internal cities and found that only 14% of respondents supported the move.
Despite the poor results, salafist leader Mahfouz Ould Adoum says it all comes down to how the party presents itself.
"Salafists have a strong aversion to the word 'politics' because for many, it has become synonymous with democracy. However, when politics means 'Sharia-sanctioned politics,' I don't think that anyone would oppose it." Ould Adoum told Mauritanian website al-akhbar.info on June 10th.
"As to objections about licencing Islamic parties, they are nothing but attempts by seculars and those who embrace ideas foreign to this umma to distance scholars, preachers and reformers from public affairs," Ould Adoum claimed.
For analyst Hamdi Ould Dah the establishment of a salafist political party will bring divergent results.
"It will integrate salafists as a current in the political game and thus lead to more political participation in the conservative Mauritanian society," he said. At the same time, it will reveal "strong differences that may rock a current that has remained away from light". Entry onto the political scene could also lead to the loss of "many of its supporters, who embrace conservative and narrow views that consider democracy to be against religion", he continued.
The movement is in a difficult position, according to Ould Dah. The salafist leaders now calling for a political party "are the same ones who were saying in their lessons that democracy is prohibited and fitna", he said. And while the salafist current may lose its unity if it engages in politics, it will "lose its standing if it remains isolated from the political mobility that followed the Arab Spring," Ould Dah said.
"In the end, the salafist current in Mauritania is going through a critical and important period," he said.
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