The apostasy game

The strange thing about laws against apostasy and blasphemy is that most of the people who fall foul of them are neither apostates nor intentional blasphemers. In practice these laws have very little to do with theology and are mostly used as a pretext for settling political scores or pursuing personal grudges.

The latest victim is Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, a 29-year-old journalist who was sentenced to death in Mauritania last week after being convicted of apostasy. Mohamed had written an article criticising Mauritania's discriminatory caste system which also discussed similar practices in the time of the Prophet. 

On January 2 this year – two days after his article appeared online – Mohamed was arrested and has been in jail ever since. His family reportedly disowned him, his marriage was dissolved on grounds of apostasy and his lawyer abandoned him. A Mauritanian businessman also offered a substantial reward for anyone who succeeding in killing him.

During his court hearing the judge told Mohamed that he was accused of apostasy "for speaking lightly of the Prophet" in his article. Mohamed replied that it was "not his intention to harm the prophet", according to a judicial source quoted by AFP.

Underlying the case, however, is a political battle between Islamists and leftists within the country's opposition. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in November last year, the Tewassoul party (linked to the Muslim Brotherhood) broke ranks with other parties in the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (COD) and decided to contest the polls. The ten other parties in the COD denounced the elections as a "masquerade" and boycotted them. Tewassoul went on to win a disappointing 16 seats (out of 146) and complained about "serious irregularities" in the voting.

This disappointing result, coupled with accusations of betrayal coming from other opposition parties seems to have been one reason for the Islamists' campaign to discredit leftists. In an article last January, Ahmad Ould Jeddou suggested it was an attempt by Islamists to distract attention from their own failings.

The result, according to Jeddou, was "a flood of takfir (accusations of apostasy) and an exchange of accusations" which culminated in Mohamed's arrest:

"Fatwas signed by a group of Mauritanian religious scholars were issued accusing some activists of apostasy and referring to excerpts from their posts on their personal pages on social media. Some activists deactivated their accounts due to family pressures after they were accused of apostasy."

Jeddou continued:

"This ... opened the door for a series of articles and statements accusing the leftist movement in Mauritania of spreading atheism. It called on [leftist] activists to repent to God and integrate themselves into Muslim society. Some even demanded the shutdown of the left-affiliated Aqlam Horra ("Free Pens") website, on which the article had been published. The website was seen as the platform of blasphemy in the country even though the article was deleted and an apology was issued."

There was also a campaign to close a cafe in the capital, Nouakchott, which was claimed to be "a hotbed of atheism" and a meeting place for "Westerner-wannabes". (There are parallels here with the closure of an "atheist" cafe in Egypt last month.)

Conflict among the opposition between Islamists and leftists also suits the Mauritanian government, according to Jeddou:

"Many are saying that Mauritanian intelligence is taking advantage of intellectual disputes on the web and conflicts between youth belonging to different backgrounds. The agency is recruiting jihadists to instill fear among those setting forth different proposals and to accuse whoever opposes it with apostasy. The agency also creates crises to distract the average citizen from real problems, such as high prices, unemployment and corruption. The only beneficiary of this situation is the government and the ruling power."

In 2010 claims of apostasy were directed against another Mauritanian journalist, Hanefi Ould Dehah (or Dahah). Dehah, editor of the Taqadoumy news website, was initially arrested after a former presidential candidate, Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, accused him of defamation over an article alleging that Sarr used campaign funds to buy a villa.

At his trial, Ould Dehah was cleared of the defamation charge, as well as charges of "incitement to rebellion" and "incitement to commit crimes and misdemeanours". However, he was convicted of "offending public decency" in connection with a page on Taqadoumy's website which discussed morality and sex education. 

After completing his six-month "indecency" sentence, Dehah was kept in jail then re-tried and sentenced to a further two years. He was among 100 prisoners eventually pardoned in February 2010 to mark the Prophet's birthday.

In prison, Dehah had gone on hunger strike in protest at his continued detention after serving his six-month sentence. Clerics characterised his hunger strike as attempted suicide – and thus as un-Islamic behaviour which made him a kafir (non-believer).

To reinforce their claims of apostasy, Dehah's opponents circulated what purported to be an Arabic translation of an article from the Wall Street Journal calling for his release. The translation was doctored to say that Dehah had "left Islam" at the age of 18 when the original WSJ article merely said he had "broken with the Islamists" when he was 18.  
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 30 December 2014