Houleye Thiam: The Sad Story of Black Muslim Mauritanians

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a racially and ethnically diverse country that straddles the divide between North and West Africa, bridging the Sahara and the Sahel. Since its artificial creation by the former colonising power France in 1960, this nation has been a theatre for violent ethnic conflicts, disgraceful practices of slavery, racial discrimination at all levels, as well as an entrenched authoritarian government that represents and serves the interests of the minority Arab population. These four issues have made Mauritania to be amongst the least stable and most underdeveloped countries in the world. It is a society where Muslims oppress other Muslims, not on the basis of differences in creed, but on the basis of race and tribal identities.

As the present-day nation encompasses ethnically different and, in many cases, culturally antagonistic communities, any attempt to build national unity or a sense of fraternity and brotherhood represents a daunting task, one that has yet to be achieved. This has been exacerbated by an obsessive determination on the part of the Arabs not to share political and economic power with their Black co-citizens. Black Mauritanians comprised of Fulani, Wolof, and Soninke ethnic communities, as well as the Haratin (Black Bidhaans/Arabs), have experienced massive human rights abuse, including slavery, which is an issue that persists to this day. 

These ethnic groups have also faced an attempted genocide, as the government has used both violent and administrative measures to try to erase them from the nation.

The worst wave of violence came in the late 1980s, when Black Mauritanians (most of whom were from the Fulani ethnic group) suffered a campaign of violent oppression involving arbitrary arrests, torture, mass killings, deportation and dispossession. More recently, the Afro-Mauritanian groups (Fulani, Wolof, and Soninke) have been facing what is called an “administrative genocide”, where the Mauritanian government has hindered and prevented thousands of Black Mauritanians from enrolling in the latest census which began in 2011. The inability to “register” has hindered entire families from getting the most basic civil documents, such as their national ID card, drivers licenses, birth certificates, etc. This means that thousands of Black Mauritanian children are not able to get birth certificates and pursue formal schooling, while adults are unable to obtain legitimate employment, nor can they travel freely throughout the country, or anywhere else. 

Despite the ethnic and cultural divisions, Mauritania has a 100% Muslim population that exclusively follows the Malekite Rite. Yet this unity of faith has not stopped our Arab Muslim brothers and sisters, from targeting and deporting thousands of Black Mauritanians to Senegal and Mali, even during the holy month of Ramadan in 1989.

In the surah al-Ḥujurāt (49:13) in the Qurān al-Karīm, Allah the most Merciful says “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and acquainted.” If all Muslims were to heed the words of this surah, the entire world, including Mauritania, would be a better place for all to live in, and the Muslim world would not be going through as many social justice issues in current times and in the past as it has.

What has happened in Mauritania is the fact that the racism and hatred in the hearts of those leading the government since 1960 has resounded louder than God’s words. Yes, racism and racial discrimination has rung louder when Black Mauritanians would watch in disarray while one ethnic group, one race, shares the economic wealth amongst itself while the rest of the Muslim and Black population perishes of poverty. The race card has rung louder when Black Mauritanians see their Arab counterparts nominated in 25 high official posts in the government, while Black Muslim Mauritanians can only get three or  four out of those nominations. We can say that in Mauritania racism has rung louder when Black Mauritanians see every single bank in the country owned by Arab-Mauritanians, when in every school Arabic is being taught while Black African Languages such as Fulani, Wolof and Soninke have not been taught in official schools in more than 30 years. Yes, we can say that racism has rung louder in Mauritania and that in this country skin colour matters more than God’s word, as we see our Arab brothers and sisters protesting in the capital city of Nouakchott to show their solidarity for Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine while not lifting a finger to condemn the killings, deportations, arbitrary arrests, enslavement and daily humiliation of their Black Muslim neighbours who share the same country and history.

Another way racial discrimination has been tearing families apart, hindering the birth of nationhood and national unity in Mauritania, is this lack of accountability for those that have killed and destroyed families, who are still roaming free in Mauritania where not one single perpetrator of those that killed the thousands of Black Fulani Mauritanians in the 1980s and 1990s both civilian and in the military were held accountable. How can Mauritania heal, when the victims can see their perpetrators, in the same city, at the market, at the beach, at the soccer game, or nominated in the highest post in the government, when their “hands are dirty with blood”? How can the families of the victims heal, when they know that the Mauritanian government, which is supposed to serve and protect, has refused to hold accountable those that killed husbands and fathers and have left families in disarray, and with open wounds for more than 30 year?

An example of this is Fatimata, who now lives in the US with her mum, sister and brothers. This family has faced the most brutal treatment from the Mauritanian government. Fatimata now 30 does not know her dad, and does not know what it feels like to have a father in her life. She has never experienced a fathers love. Her dad  who was a military soldier, was killed when she was six months old. He went to work one day and never came home which left her mum in agony trying to figure out what what happened to her husband. It would be years before Fatimata’s family, would learn that her dad, was killed in the camp of Jreida in the most horrible ways under atrocious torture.

In conclusion I can say without a shadow of a doubt that sadly in Mauritania, an emphasis has been placed more on what makes us different, as opposed to what unites us which is our beloved religion. We can do better as a country, and I sure hope that we will do better, and that we will finally embrace and love each other as Mauritanians despite our skin colour and ethnic background. A wise man once said, Mauritania will be with all of its children, or it will not BE.

Houleye Thiam

Houleye Thiam, MPA, MS is president of The Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in The US. She is also president and founder of Youth and Hope, L’espoir pour La Jeunesse and Social Worker/ Organiser / Mauritanian Community Activist.

Houleye Thiam: The Sad Story of Black Muslim Mauritanians

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