O n Sunday, Mauritania’s Forum of Imams and Ulemas (FIU) demanded the execution of Mohamed Cheikh Ould M'khaitir. An engineer and blogger, Mr. M’khaitir was convicted of apostasy in December 2014 and sentenced to death. His crime: an article titled ‘Religion, Religiosity, and Craftsmen’, criticising the deployment of Islamic precepts to justify oppression of his ‘smithy’ caste, the Moulamine.
His piece struck a nerve: Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981, and still has a pervasive caste system. Alice Bullard, a Washington-based historian and human rights lawyer, explains that “Mauritania is a tribalistic and feudal society” whose Arab-Berber tribes “have had slaves through the centuries” as well as “rigid caste hierarchies” within their ‘White Moor’ caste. A 2016 Index led by anti-slavery group the Walk Free Foundation counted 43,000 individuals trapped in slavery - but that may be a conservative estimate, with Anti-Slavery reporting up to 18% (600,000) of Mauritanians enslaved.
Cheikh Ould M’khaitir’s execution would be the country’s first since 1987, but it fits a trend of critical bloggers being persecuted in other Islamist-led countries. Saudi blogger Raif al-Badawi’s 2012 imprisonment and 2013 sentencing garnered international outrage - like M’khaitir, Mr. Badawi still languishes in prison. Improprieties marr both men’s trials: Mr. M’khaitir, in solitary confinement for over a year now, was tried without legal counsel after death threats forced his lawyer to stand down. Following a vitriolic campaign to tarnish Mr. M’khaitir’s name, prominent clerics and businessmen offered bounties for his summary killing. This public resentment is “wrapped up in the global resurgence of ultra-conservative Islam”, according to Professor Bullard, who tells The World Weekly that high-ranking officials believe Mr. M’khaitir’s “imprisonment saved his life”.
In March, Elizabeth O’Casey of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) pleaded for Mr. M’khaitir and other activists’ release. At a UN Human Rights Council meeting, she noted that “what is particularly disturbing... is not only the complete lack of regard for basic rights to expression... but that these individuals are seeking to exercise such rights in order to highlight and improve the rights-situation for enslaved people in Mauritania”.
Although Mr. M’khaitir’s blog never tackled slavery head on, the authorities prosecuting him are intent on suppressing threats to the status quo. Ms. O’Casey called on the government “to cease its harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment of anti-slavery campaigners; and, crucially, to remove the crime of apostasy from national legislation”. But with anti-slavery groups’ headquarters lifeless since the state forced them shut in 2014, and the FIU reiterating on Monday that “no exception” should be made to “God’s law”, it looks like the apostasy condemnation will either claim Mr. M’khaitir’s life, or let it drain away in isolation.