Mauritanian activist sparks religious storm


The detention of a prominent Mauritanian activist has sparked widespread controversy in the West African nation while exposing its troubled history of slavery, as Tom Little from BBC Monitoring reports.

Biram Ould Obeidi, of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism in Mauritania (IRA-Mauritania), led a protest against slavery after Friday prayers on 28 April, during which he burned copies of a text from the Maliki School of Islamic law, saying it encouraged slavery.

Mr Obeidi and nine other activists were arrested by security forces soon after and taken to an undisclosed location. The book-burning triggered demonstrations in the capital Nouakchott in the following days.

Seven of the 10 have now been charged with threatening state security, while three were released.

Mauritania is a deeply conservative society and is sharply divided along racial lines, where Moors, descended from Berbers and Arabs, ruled over and enslaved black Africans known as Haratine.

Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and outlawed it in 2007, the practice still persists today.The Party of the Union of Strength and Progress

Mr Obeidi’s actions have caused real anger in Mauritania, because the text belongs to the Maliki doctrine of Islamic jurisprudence, to which most lawmakers in Mauritania – and their Muslim counterparts elsewhere in West Africa – subscribe. The country’s state news agency reported a wave of marches in Nouakchott in protest at the incident in the days following his arrest.

Parties from across the political spectrum were also quick to condemn Mr Obeidi’s actions, even those in the opposition who had been sympathetic to his cause.

The Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tawasul) issued a condemnation on the same day as the protest. The Party of the Union of Strength and Progress also made a statement on 28 April, describing Mr Obeidi’s actions as «a heinous act that affected the heart and conscience of the Mauritanian people».

All parties were keen to stress their opposition to slavery within their statements.

Media backlash

IRA-Mauritania apologised for the incident in an online statement. They said that they acted out of desperation at inaction about slavery in Mauritania and that their «intention was certainly not to hurt the pride of the Muslims».

Nevertheless, the fallout from the protests has continued, according to media reports within Mauritania. On 4 May, independent news agency Al-Akhbar said that the imam of a mosque in central Nouakchott had delivered a sermon referring to Mr Obeidi and his fellow activists as «devils… criminals who will also burn Korans, the Ulama [Muslim scholars] and the whole country if nothing is done to stop them».

Even supporters of Mr Obeidi’s campaigning criticized his method. Mauritanian journalist Seydi Moussa Camara published an open letter to him, in which he said the president had been «reinvigorated» by the incident.

«My friend Biram, what you did was to offer the chance of a lifetime to your detractors.» The article said Mr Obeidi was arrested not because of the book-burning, but because of his «qualities as a troublesome human rights activist».

Mr Camara suggested that the government of President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz would exploit the issue in order to silence IRA-Mauritania and divert attention away from challenges to its authority.

Reputation tarnished

Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz in Senegal, 2 April 2012
President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz has been a target of opposition criticism

Supporters of Mr Obeidi have also taken to the streets over the last month to demand his release – a call echoed by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Frontline Defenders.

He has been a persistent and vocal critic of his government’s human rights record and he is well-known on the world stage. In March 2012, he appeared in a CNN documentary in which he talked about how widespread the practice of slavery is in Mauritania.

Although Mr Obeidi’s organization has repeatedly apologised for burning the texts, it seems his reputation has been significantly damaged by the protest, as press and public reactions have been overwhelmingly negative inside Mauritania.

Furthermore, the protest may put an end to his high-profile campaign as offences in Mauritania involving Islam can incur hefty penalties.

BBC News – Mauritanian activist sparks religious storm.

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