In Mauritania, The Fight To Abolish Slavery Runs Into Radical Islamism

In the northwestern African nation, anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid is accused of burning pages from a holy book that promoted slavery, prompting a call for his execution and a return to Sharia Law.

Child labor in Mauritania (UN/Jean Pierre Laffont)
Child labor in Mauritania (UN/Jean Pierre Laffont)
Christophe Châtelot

NOUAKCHOTT - Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist in this northwestern African nation, is sitting in jail. The president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA) in Mauritania was arrested on April 29 with ten other people – relatives, IRA leaders and ordinary activists -- accused of "violating Mauritanian Islamic values' after an anti-slavery demonstration.

Though denied by authorities, slavery is still a common practice in Mauritania. Amnesty International is asking for the release of these "prisoners of conscience."

On April 27, Biram, a descendant of slaves, gathered a group of activists for a collective Muslim prayer held outside, as slavery is a taboo subject in places of worship. It is a political act. After the prayers, he set fire to pages from books from the Maliki School of Islamic law, books that talk about servants' rights and masters' duties. These ancient books that promote slavery are still studied today.

Biram took great care not to burn the pages mentioning the Koran, Allah or Muhammad. But he was arrested a few hours later with great violence, thanks to an impressive number of elite forces.

Since then, Mauritanian NGOs like Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, SOS Slaves, and the Mauritanian Human Rights League, have denounced this book-burning as "provocative and ill advised." They nevertheless ask for the immediate release of Biram and his relatives "so that they can have a trial as soon as possible, according to international standards." After a month in custody, the prisoners were charged with threatening state security. Three of the ten activists -- but not Biram -- have been released.

For Amnesty International, freedom of speech includes "forms of expressions which can be considered as deeply shocking." And indeed Biram's autodafé shocked even his closest friends. "Biram is out of control; he is going too far and it harms the cause he defends," a close relative confides. "But it's not a reason to harass him."

In February 2011, the Mauritanian President pardoned Biram and five other IRA members after they were sent to prison for political activism. Some in Nouakchott worry that legal authorities could characterize the book-burning as a "terrorist act," and inflict severe punishment.

"As Islamist groups are taking over in neighboring Mali, the Mauritanian government might try to pander to religious Mauritanians. Biram would be the perfect scapegoat," says a Human Rights activist. The Mauritanian Human Rights action group concurs, wondering if "the hysterical crowd marching through the streets, screaming about blasphemy and asking for Biram's death" is spontaneous or not. The public television showed the book-burning images over and over, reporting on the "fury of the huge masses."

A delegation met with President Aziz to ask for a "doctrinal punishment against the IRA apostates." What worries Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS Slaves, is that the President is promising to apply Sharia law in Mauritania although he has always been a regional leader in the fight against al-Qaeda. A number of NGOs are denouncing a "growing Talibanization of society." There are accounts of radical Islamism spreading in mosques of densely populated neighborhoods, where imams are getting the attention of unemployed youths.

The Mauritanian President, elected in the summer of 2010 after leading a coup d"état in 2009, is faced with a growing political opposition, who is asking for his resignation. In a regional context of crisis, the Mauritanian society is divided, caught between Black Africa (where the slaves hailed) and the Arab-Berber area (the Moors, who were the slaves' masters).

Slavery is a sensitive subject. "For the authorities, this problem vanished when slavery was abolished in 1981 and since its criminalization in the penal code, in 2007. We speak about it in the past tense, we tell the story of a grandmother who was a slave. Today slaves might not be controlled through violence, but they are all around us, guarding camels and cleaning up the streets, even though we deny it," denounces Boubacar Messaoud.

Opposition leader and National Assembly president Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, is founder of the Elhor movement which fought against slavery in the early 1980s. Though progress has been made in reducing slavery, Boulkheir concludes: "We need to stop denying or we'll never be rid of it."

Read the article in French in Le Monde.

Photo- UN/Jean-Pierre Laffont

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!