Protests as government shuts down Islamic HE institutions

Student demonstrations erupted and two academics were arrested by Mauritanian police in the outcry following a government shutdown of two Islamic higher education institutions at the end of September, after their teaching licences were revoked due to alleged links with the main opposition Islamic political party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The University of Abdullah ibn Yasin (UAIY) and the Centre for Training Islamic Scholars (CTIS), both located in the capital Nouakchott, were closed after recent warnings made by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz against politicised Islam.

Other reasons given by the Mauritanian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research for revoking the licences on 25 September included funding sources and curricula, according to a Sahara Media news report.

A leading figure at both institutions, Mohamed Elhacen Ould Dedaw, who is the head of the CTIS and the UAIY scientific council, is popularly known as “the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood in Mauritania”. The transnational Sunni Islamist organisation, founded in Egypt, has supporters throughout the Arab world.

Observers saw the closures as a result of Abdel Aziz’s speech on 20 September, against Mauritania’s main opposition party, the National Rally for Reform and Development, also known by its Arabic name of Tewassoul, being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdel Aziz warned that measures would be put into effect against any “single party using and usurping Islam”. He said political Islam was dangerous, as its ideology had “destroyed whole nations”.

In the outcry that ensued following the closures, the CTIS directorate filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office against the “illegal action”, according to a news report. During a CTIS student demonstration on 27 September, police arrested the school’s deputy director and a teacher, according to another report.

The UAIY students’ association said the closure was “illegal, immoral and unjustified in a civil state that is supposed to support and encourage educational attainment”.

Tewassoul leader Mohamed Jamil Ould Mansour posted a statement on Facebook that read: “We categorically reject the closure of CTIS, and consider it a dangerous precedent for the violation of freedoms in this country, especially those who know the mission of the centre, which includes hundreds of students coming from different continents, and it is known for its moderation around the world.”

According to an Albawaba report, he called for the immediate reopening of both institutions.

In other reaction, the Organisation of Democratic Opposition in Mauritania called on authorities to reverse the “unjust decision [as] education in general – and religious education in particular – is an integral part of the culture and identity of the people”.

The Mauritanian opposition movement Refuse also condemned the government crackdown.

In addition, several other regional and international organisations issued statements condemning the closure of CTIS. They included the Qatar-based International Union for Muslim scholars, Senegal’s Forum Al Wassatiya en Afrique, Turkey’s Sunna Scholars Association, the Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora and an Islamic association called Justice and Spirituality in Morocco.

Mohamed Yeslem Elbagher, a member of the Islamic Development Bank Alumni and Science Development Network, and a former Mauritanian researcher at the University of Nouakchott, told University World News: “To protect universities and educational institutions from decisions that could be politically motivated, decisions must be based on the power of the law. Universities must be examined by an independent international organisation that alone has the right to decide about any claims of promoting extremism.”

He added: “Generally, universities and educational institutions must beware of any political manipulation.”

The UAIY had been operating since 2010, with faculties that included Sharia and Islamic studies, economy and management, arts and the media, legal sciences and technology, and centres that instructed on language and Islamic finance. The CTIS opened in 2007.