On Friday January 3rd, the Nouadibou gendarmerie brigade arrested twenty-eight year old Mauritanian Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. The young accountant and blogger is to be tried for lack of respect to prophet Muhammad and for apostasy. The latter is punishable by death in Mauritania. Although Sharia law is enforced in the country, death sentences have not been applied by the government since the 1980s.
According to Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code, “Unless they have repented, every person guilty of the crime of apostasy (Zandagha) shall be put to death.”
Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir published an article titled “Religion, Religiosity and Blacksmiths” on the Mauritanian website Aqlame. Although it was posted anonymously, the authorities somehow managed to obtain his name. The editor of Aqlame later tried to absolve himself of editorial responsibility by claiming that he had not read the article prior to its publication, and that he immediately deleted it amid angry comments and reactions.
The article’s aim was to partly blame the deeply hierarchical structure of Mauritanian society on traditions dating back to the times of prophet Muhammad. More specifically, Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir deplored the fact that the social class he belongs to – the Blacksmiths – was not permitted socio-economic promotion due to ancient traditions. The blogger also reportedly criticized Muhammad and his companions for some of their decisions during Islam’s holy wars. Despite the fact that he issued a public written apology in which he insisted that he never meant to denigrate the person of the prophet, the blogger could not escape the wrath of public outrage.
First, his family members wrote and co-signed a letter in which they basically disown him unless he repents. The letter reads:
“It does look like the foolish modernists, secularists and atheists are still attempting to derail us from the true path after their Jewish and hypocrite masters failed to do so. […] The author of the article must be sponsored by some outside forces. He equated his infallible religion with the rest of humanity’s beliefs and falsely accused our prophet of racism and favoritism. This is not surprising from someone who seeks knowledge from those who hate Allah and his prophet peace be upon him. […] We call upon society to denounce any individual who adopts a similar stance.”
In addition, the streets of Nouadibou witnessed an escalation of clashes between angry mobs and the police. Taking place in front of the court where Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir is supposed to be tried, the protests turned violent, forcing the authorities to reinforce security presence around the tribunal. The protesters expressed their anger at the amount of time the justice system is taking to prosecute the blogger, accusing it of being soft. Mauritanian online press outlets followed suit by praising “the large crowds from all walks of life” who “even discarded their professional duties” (!) in order to publicly condemn the blogger. They also reported the numerous appeals from “imams, scholars and professors” to execute Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. Preacher Abi Ould Ali said he would pay 4000 Euros to anyone who kills the blogger.
Such outpouring of public anger is only part of a wave of Islamic radicalism that has been building up in Mauritania for the last weeks. Mauritanian activists confirm that in collaboration with Salafists, members of Tawassoul (Mauritanian Islamist party) have been organizing an undercover Facebook witch hunt against their political enemies. In addition, public opinion has been flooded with calls for parents to better “monitor” their children. Mauritanian families were reportedly visited by ad-hoc committees who advised them to silence their adult sons and daughters. The latter are targeted disproportionally, as evidenced by the orchestrated campaign of condemnation against actress Laila Moulay for appearing unveiled in a videoclip.
On January 10th, after a week’s silence, the Mauritanian government added its voice to the ongoing persecution against the blogger. Facing angry protesters after the Friday prayer, president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said: “We will apply God’s law on whoever insults the prophet, and whoever publishes such an insult.” This was in line with the quasi-unanimous condemnation of Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir by political parties. The case is putting the Mauritanian government in a tough spot. If it does not apply the death penalty, it infuriates a conservative public that it can barely contain – as evidenced by the violent clashes with the police. If it does apply the death penalty, it breaks with an unwritten rule of avoiding executions, even against terrorists responsible for civilian deaths. Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir will then be a blogger treated more harshly than terrorists are.
Shunned by his relatives and the rest of Mauritanian society, the blogger had three days to retract his sayings (the Muslim ultimatum for repention). His apology was apparently not enough in the eyes of his detractors. The tragedy of his case is that he is totally isolated at home and abroad. There appears to be no condemnation yet from international watchdogs of the unhuman treatment he is being subjected to. It is thus very hard to be optimistic regarding his future. Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir has however committed no crime worthy of social isolation or the death penalty. All he did was to harmlessly express his opinion on a social matter. His ordeal is yet another example of the danger Islamists pose to individual freedoms: they would rather have free minds dead than argue with them.
*Zouhair Mazouz is Free Arabs’ Assistant Editor.