Mauritania is a country of multiple identities and great demographic diversity. This strongly raises issues such as national unity, discrimination and persecution. Moreover, there have been clashes between some of its social classes, as was the case in the past between black and Arab communities. Currently, Mauritania is witnessing a remarkable sectarian social movement that is steadily growing. The movement has called for the adoption of positive discrimination policies to benefit marginalized groups in society. These policies aim at integrating these groups into the production cycle and freeing them from poverty, ignorance and oppression. They also seek to put an end to the rejection of other groups and call for respecting them, their history and their achievements, and treating them justly.
Craftsmen: a cry against contempt
A while ago, skilled craftsmen (blacksmiths or artisans) started taking action against what they believed to be a historical crime against them. Activists from this social stratum say that the rest of the Mauritanian population treats them with contempt and rejection. There is a common belief that they are bad omens and bring misfortune. However, the craftsmen believe that, among the Mauritanian people, they are the most beneficial group to the state and society. They are a pillar of industry in the country, manufacturing weapons to defend the land and all the necessary machines that facilitate life. They are also known for their creativity in various fields. According to the activists, the contempt craftsmen are subject to is due to the work of some historians, who distorted their history by fabricating fictitious stories about their origin and character.
Moreover, some Mauritanian clergymen have doubted that the members of this social class are Muslims and have issued fatwas prohibiting them from leading prayers, further consecrating their position of inferiority. [Outside] marriage to a member of this social class is also prohibited. This is a recurrent phenomenon in tribal/nomadic, pastoral and agricultural societies, which see craft activity as inferior to the prevailing public activity, and a focal point of differing values and relationships. They consider crafts menial occupations, as they have been referred to several times in anthropological studies. However, activists from this social class complain about marginalization by their own state and their lack of access to high-level jobs and positions. According to them, only one minister has been appointed from this class in the history of Mauritania. They also say that the state ignores their crafts and their contribution to Mauritania's economy. They are demanding re-examination and redrafting of historical texts and the condemnation of all activities that consecrate the exclusion of their class under a religious pretext. They also demand the right to the country’s wealth and more involvement in decision-making.
Demand for positive discrimination
Mauritania is one of the last bastions of slavery (in its ancient form at least) in the world. However, the situation is more complicated than that. Even those liberated from slavery are still suffering from its aftermath and endure the scourge of poverty, ignorance and marginalization, which is the case of the Harratin (former slaves). This led some activists in March 2013 to issue a charter on the political, economic and social rights of former slaves within a united, fair and reconciled Mauritania. For this purpose, they called on the charter for positive discrimination, relief and redress. They included figures on the tragic situation: the Harratin include more than 80% of the 1,400,000 Mauritanians living below the poverty line, more than 85% of the 1,500,000 illiterate persons in Mauritania, almost 90% of small farmers who do not have access to land as a result of traditional grants or feudal exploitation and bondage, and less than 2% of the high-level officials in both public and semi-public sectors. Moreover, an average of only two out of 40 ministers in successive Mauritanian governments were Harratin during the last 30 years.
The outcome is 20 ministers out of 600 who served from 1957 to 2012. Furthermore, more than 90% of Harratin diploma holders who are candidates in national competitions are excluded in the final stages through oral interviews. Less than 40 officers out of more than 500 are Harratins. This discrimination appears clearly in the National Guard, which includes only one Harratin guard who happens to be a doctor, and whose name was included on the list of applicants to the rank of general in 2013 from among the 19 generals promoted last year. Thanks to the charter, the movement that preceded it and the successive demands, it appears that the struggle of slaves and former slaves is no longer only against slavery, but also aims at redressing this category and integrating it into the economic and production sectors.
Sectarian demands between acceptance and rejection
The strong emergence of sectarian demands in Mauritania has led some to question their usefulness, the cohesion of the people and the future of national unity. Some believe that this situation will only add to the division of the Mauritanian people, since sectarian demands incite strife, open old wounds and awaken other classes who will then have sectarian demands. They believe that the state project needs to adopt a unifying discourse and comprehensive movement, and that sectarian struggle seriously affects the future of the people. On the other hand, others believe that this class has been severely damaged throughout the history of Mauritania and suffers still. They see fairness as the first step toward any national unity in Mauritania. They also believe that the demands are legitimate and urgent and that no delay is acceptable. Moreover, handling these claims is not impossible, but requires genuine political will. This movement proves, among other things, the state of awareness of human rights and a culture of rejection of injustice.
The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.