Radicalization and Citizenship in Mauritania

Radicalization and Citizenship. Mauritania National Report
[ version française ]

Research managers
National report
Mariem BABA AHMED, anthropologist at CEROS [Centre d’études et de recherches sur l’ouest saharien], a centre for studies and research on Sahara’s western region

Field survey
Mamadou LAM, sociolinguist at GLIDA [Groupe de recherche en Linguistique et Didactique], a research group in linguistics and didactics at the University of Nouakchott


Study areas
Mauritania is a land steeped in paradox where sedentary and nomadic peoples of Arab-Berber and black African culture cohabit; their fates are tied tightly together in an entwined legacy of antagonism and conflict, common interest, alliances, and inter-ethnic complementarity. The border areas covered by this study are the wilayas1 of Hodh El Gharbi, Hodh Ech Chargui (in the extreme south-east), Assaba (in the east) – all three of which neighbour Mali – and the Brakna wilaya (in the centre-south) which borders part of the Senegal River. These regions were also chosen as study areas in this research for historical and security reasons. The people of the first three wilayas are essentially Hassaniya-speaking, of Arab-Berber heritage. Here, in terms of numbers, are found the country’s great tribal confederations, but also places where minorities (Soninké, Peul, Haalpulaar and Bambara) have been established for centuries. This is different from some of the Brakna areas visited (Bagne, Niabina) where Haalpulaar communities make up the majority of the population. The town of Aleg and its surroundings are traditionally places of cohabitation between Moors and Halaiba Fulani. Nouakchott is, like all urban centres, a mixing place, although it retains fairly distinct community separation.

State and citizenship, religion and identity
Religion (that is, Islam) is fundamental to identity in Mauritania, where proximity to the judicial- theological standard has spread a popularized version of Islamic knowledge. Political Islamist groups and violent extremists put this knowledge to their own uses in many ways. Citizenship is not always accepted because it is hampered by pyramidal social structures (tribes, factions) that are more pertinent and efficient. Trust in the state goes up and down. Historically, there is a relationship between society and latent, ‘managed’ violence, that is not perceived as such by the masses who describe themselves as pacifist and conciliatory.

Inter-communal and cross-border dynamics
Inter-ethnic conflicts – sometimes latent, sometimes open – are crystallized within the Arabic language. While Islam plays a role of inter-communal unification, the different rituals involved in the practice of religion are also a cause for the demarcation of ethnic identity. While a large majority of former slaves live in a post-slavery situation marked by precariousness, descendants of slaves are increasingly demanding recognition. The border is perceived as both a place of rupture and extension in terms of security and commerce. While residents in ‘peri-border’ areas (Kiffa, Barkéol, Kankossa, etc.) say they feel they mostly enjoy the benefits of a dual geographical location, those living closest to the border (Bassiknou, Adel Bagrou, Bousteyla) report more disadvantages. The crisis in Mali, in particular, has weakened tenure of the border area which was already disturbed shortly before independence. For respondents in Bassiknou and the eastern Hodh region, ‘terrorist deviations’ with religious references originate in Mali.

Radicalization: clues and process
The entire range of political and violent messages/actions with a religious basis are found in Mauritania. According to this study, three organisations enjoy the highest visibility: the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism, and Tablighi Jemaat Dawa (a proselytizing movement). The process of radicalization is not linear in Mauritania. Rather, it swings continually between a hardening and weakening in relation to ‘organised’ religious observance. One enters and exits the circle of radicalization with a flexibility that blurs the actual influence of the phenomenon and the way it turns into actual violence. The mastering of religious texts, honoured as part of culture and/or identity in Mauritania, can have two different significant effects. In some cases, it helps protect against excess (by neutralizing individuals so soaked in dogmatic knowledge that they could not be baited by the extremist message). In other cases, it is used by the holders of this same knowledge and helps to propel them into the circles of decision-making and design of the violent extremists.

The role of women
In Mauritania, there is great variation in the status of women, depending on whether they belong to the Moor or black Mauritanian community. Although women are devalued in all communities, the lingering matriarchy within the Moorish community gives women more visibility and active participation in decision-making. The Moors see women as the guarantors of social values. Traditionally, they are entrusted with giving children their first Quranic instruction, teaching up to the basics of the Sunna and Hadith. Women are very present and fill a valued role in social aspects of the new religious practices. They serve as transmitters within their own circles, but also as reactors within civil society. They bring force to claims and are mobilized during protests (organizing meetings demanding the release of Salafist prisoners or going door-to-door to raise awareness).

Avenues for reflection
Two strategic lines of reflection and institutional action have been identified:

  • Anticipate the potential for a drift into violence;Build a space for observati
  • on and debate about developments in religious life.

Based on the perceptions collected from respondents and observations made in the field, supported by analysis and discussions with various relevant actors, five avenues for further reflection have emerged:

  • Put education at the centre of responsible citizenship;
  • Plan and establish support actions within the mahadras;
  • Recreate and restore trust in the state;
  • Rethink administrative, economic and cultural decentralization for greater effectiveness;
  • Invest in communication.


1. Mauritanian society and its inner identity
Horizontality and hierarchy
Modernity and reorganisation
2. Mauritania… an Islamic state
3. Modular religiosity

1. Ethnic and religious divides
2. Borders: social change, trafficking and insecurity

1. Radicalization and violence: words in action and the action of words
2. Radicalization: sources and resources
3. Traditional religious knowledge: obstacle or facilitator?

1. Gender in Mauritania
2. Gender and radicalization
Women, borders and insecurity
Women and religious life in urban areas



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