Vidya Bhushan Rawat is the Director of Social Development Foundation, an Associate of Humanists International working to end untouchability and caste-discrimination in India. In this interview, Vidya speaks with Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, an antislavery activist and blogger from Mauritania who spent six years in prison and survived the ‘death penalty’ for his ‘alleged’ blasphemy remarks.
Thanks to the work of Humanists International, Mohamed flew to France in 2019, where is now living in safety as a refugee. He can’t return to his country Mauritania where Islamic clerics wanted to execute him. Mohamed belongs to an untouchable community whose conditions are worse than the slaves. Despite officially abolishing slavery, Mauritania is one of the biggest countries where slavery still exists.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat (VB): You recently made a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council on the state of slavery and caste discrimination in Mauritania, where some of the human rights defenders face serious criminal charges under the Blasphemy and Apostasy Act. What are their conditions in prison? Do their families support them or are they also socially isolated?
Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir (MCOM): The prisoners of conscience, defenders of human rights and opponents of slavery live in tragic conditions inside Mauritanian prisons, and it does not stop there, as they live in harsher conditions due to social isolation, their families disavow them, – families are obliged to do so, because the clergy considers that any family which has not disowned its children who violate the dominant religious mentality are unfaithful families which must be socially isolated – which puts the prisoners in a very difficult situation in all respects, in the recent arrests that I spoke about in front of the United Nations One of the detainees was released but found himself isolated and without work, as he was working as a teacher in one of the primary schools, but the clerics lobbied on the government to strip it of its duties, and their argument in this is that anyone with secular thinking is a danger to future generations and should not be part of the educational organization.
VB: You face six years in prison in Mauritania for alleged ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’. Can you tell us what you ‘wrote’ for which you were arrested?
MCOM: Following the article, the Ulema and the tribal system considered the article to be an accusation of inhumanity and loss of the quality of justice of the Prophet Muhammad. As a result, I was charged with blasphemy and sent to jail, I was sentenced to death, and a decision was made by the clergy to divorce my wife, and she was forcibly married off to another man.
VB: What were the charges against you and when were you arrested?
MCOM: I was accused of apostasy and blasphemy, and sent to prison on 2 January 2014.
VB: How did you get released? How were you treated in prison? Have you been tortured?
MCOM: I was released at the end of 2019, after six years spent completely in solitary confinement, prison conditions were very harsh, to the point that I sometimes went seven months without a shower, and the psychological pressure was terrible, and the treatment Prison guards, I was not entitled to family visits until a year after my arrest and after the death sentence was passed after the trial I underwent at the end of 2014.
VB: Explain to our readers what exactly ‘blasphemy’ and apostasy mean under Islamic law?
MCOM: Apostasy in Islamic law simply means that a person declares his departure from the Islamic religion. As for Blasphemy, it has other meanings, including criticizing religion and the symbols of religion, adopting visions and philosophies that contradict Islamic law, denying an Islamic postulate such as jihad and slavery for example, or Demand rights for women outside of what is stipulated in Islamic law, and the two terms share one result, which is the abandonment of Islam.
VB: We have heard about slavery in Mauritania. How it works. Who are the ‘owners’ and who are the “slaves”. How many people serve as ‘slaves’ in Mauritania?
MCOM: Slavery in Mauritania is an ancient practice that began since the entry of Islam into Mauritania. In Islamic law, prisoners of jihad campaigns turn into slaves – as happened with the Yazidis after the ‘ISIS’ campaigns against them – the same scenario happened in Mauritania when the armies of Islamic Jihad entered, and in Islamic law, sons of slaves automatically become slaves. And the Sharia establishes in its laws’ provisions regulating the inheritance of slaves from father to son. And so slavery continues to this day.
The ‘owners’ of the slaves are whites of Arab origin, and the slaves are blacks and browns of African or Berber origin. There are no official statistics on the percentage of slaves because the government refuses to do so. However, there are rough figures, such as those announced by the organization Walk Free, which estimated the proportion of slaves to be between 10% and 20% of the population.
VB: I have also heard of ‘white Moore’ and Black Moore in your country. What are these terms and who do they refer to.
MCOM: ‘Maure/Moor’ relates to Mauritania, and that is why we use the term “Maure-Blanc” to denote the Mauritanian Arabs and the expression “Maure-noir” to denote the Afr o-m Auritanians.
VB: In India, we have always believed that the caste system is an Indian ‘discovery’ in which supremacy is based on the birth of a particular community and virtual slavery for others. There were four varnas and each one must function according to the varna system. How the caste system works in Mauritania. How many ‘castes’ are there? Are they equal in rights or do they have ‘gradual inequality’ as it exists in India ?
MCOM: There are three basic castes in Mauritania. The first is the ‘Beïdane’, which means the class of masters, the second is the ‘Harratine’, who are the slaves, and the third is the ‘Maalmine’ class, which is the untouchable class, and I belong to the third class.
And there is a gradual inequality, based on religious and social ‘reason’.
VB: Who owns the ‘lands’ and ‘resources’ in Mauritania? Who are the landless communities?
MCOM: Land in Mauritania belongs to the master class, and some former slaves own a small part of it. As for the class of ‘Maalmine/untouchables’, they have nothing.
VB: All over the world we have heard that Islamic societies do not discriminate and that there is no caste system, but your country gives us a different picture. Can you tell us what kind of discrimination communities face on the basis of their ‘castes’?
MCOM: Class is at the heart of the Islamic religion, and there are several Quranic verses confirming this, and there are many hadiths of the Prophet in this context, and I know very well that many clerics try to deny it. The Islamic system divides society into three classes, the first of which is that of masters, the second is the class of ‘Mawalis’, and then comes the class of slaves. The Mauritanian social/religious system has produced three basic layers, as I mentioned in a previous question, which are:
The closest example of the ‘Maalmine’ caste is the Dalit caste in India, although there are many differences.
The destiny of ‘Maalmine’ is to remain outcasts, while the international silence persists, as slaves often end their suffering once freed, and the discourse on slavery is understood around the world and the discourse anti-slavery can be delivered to all international forums, as for the untouchable classes, their reality is harsher, because the discourse on the untouchables does not find anyone to listen to in most human rights forums.
VB: Is untouchability practiced in your country? How is it practiced? Who are the “untouchables” and what is their “occupation” and their work.
MCOM: The ostracism to which the untouchables are subjected takes several forms, the most famous of which is of a religious nature, where religious tales say: that anyone associated with them will come on the Day of Resurrection in a shameful situation, and you express that he remains contemptible regardless of his level of education, and he is not allowed to testify in court.
The ‘Maalmine/untouchables’ class in Mauritania is allowed to do mostly limited jobs, and these jobs are limited to blacksmithing, carpentry, and some manual work considered socially inferior. where does their name (Maalmine) come from? This word means: “People who do menial work, (there are few people do other administrative work under certain conditions).
Social jokes that express lies, hypocrisy, shame, and baseness are attributed to the ‘Maalmine/untouchables’. You should not meet one of the ‘Maalmine/Intouchables’ at the start of your day because it brings bad luck, believes the Mauritanian community.
VB: Have you ever faced “untouchability”, caste discrimination, or racial discrimination as an individual? If so, please share with us and how you handled this.
MCOM: I have personally been exposed to many attitudes and practices to which those excluded from my social class are subjected to marginalization and injustice. In my work which I carried out in Mauritania (accountant), I did not have the right to occupy a position higher than the positions of the master class, even if my diploma exceeds their diplomas (I hold a master’s degree in economy, at a time when my managers did not have two years in university, but their social status forces me to be inferior to them). I have also personally experienced all the bad things mentioned in the answer to the previous question. The bad thing is that none of the human rights organizations want to speak out and shed light on the pain we live in (me and my social class) and they only talk about slavery, and they ignore our situation as untouchables living in the most horrible conditions, and this is something that made me very disappointed, almost because of it I lose all faith in human rights organizations.
VB: Please share with us your journey, your parents, your childhood, and your struggles.
MCOM: I was born in 1983, I have three brothers (two girls and a boy) and I am the oldest of my brothers. I received pure religious education in my childhood until I memorized the Quran and many Islamic Sharia books, then I entered the regular school and continued my studies until I got a master’s degree in economics. My thoughts started to change when I entered the university, where I then moved to the capital to study, and I started to read a lot of books, I was not satisfied since my childhood with the situation social imposed, but I had no choice, I was expelling the ideas that came to me from time to time, except The university scene was a crucial step, because I joined a student movement of the communist left (I do not know not the exact reason: is it because I like their proposal? are they the only ones able to give a voice to an outcast like me? Or are the two possibilities). After my first year in college, my ideas became clear enough to defend my issue – the untouchables issue – and other causes like slavery. And I took the writing as a weapon to fight the battle. I continued to work in this framework until one of the articles at the end of 2013 led me to stand in front of the gallows.
VB: How is the school system, the program. What is the ‘religious’ morality taught at school? Do schools and the education system discriminate against individuals on the basis of their birth?
MCOM: The school system is fundamentally a religious system, and the religious morals of this school are based primarily on teaching children that the world is divided into two parts: Muslims and infidels, with its negative accusations and the culture of hatred. There is no law that prevents the mixing of social class children in schools, but the reality is that the neighborhoods in which lower class people congregate do not get much attention from a standpoint.
VB: How ‘independent’ is the justice system in your country. Is there a representation of ‘slave communities’ injustice?
MCOM: There is absolutely no judicial independence in the country, and for people from the ‘lower’ social classes (slaves and Untouchables), their presence is very negligible in the judicial institutions and the prosecution. After raising the issue of the Maalmine/Untouchables, the government started appointing them to a post in early 2015.
VB: Some IRA activists in your country have been accused of “burning” Maliki law books. What are these laws and why did they burn them down? What happened to the activists?
MCOM: The Malikite books are slavery books that legalize slavery and regulate the slave trade. And so they burned it down. Most of the people who carried out this operation are still in the anti-slavery arena.
VB: How many activists are facing accusations of blasphemy and apostasy in Mauritania today?
MCOM: Over the past eighteen months, more than 12 people have been returned to prison on the basis of these charges, and there are still cases before the prosecution that could be prepared for these charges as well.
VB: How did you come into association with Humanist International and when? Are you a humanist? Do you think that humanism has the strength to fight against all religious discriminations ignored in the name of “religious freedom”?
MCOM: I have known Humanist International, while I was in prison, thanks to contacts made by Mr. Kacem Ghazali with my family, and it was the first organization to take a direct interest in my case. Of course, I present myself as a humanist. Despite all the difficulties, I believe that a humanist can achieve much of what is required in this world.
VB: How important is the work done by Humanist International?
MCOM: I believe that all the work done by Humanist International is very important, and as a person of the Sahel-Saharan Africa – a marginalized African region – I find that Humanist International is the only organization of human rights that values pay attention to this region.
VB: What would you say to the international community regarding slavery, racism, and caste discrimination? Should they not be declared crimes against humanity and dealt with seriously through an international legal mechanism?
MCOM: My message to the international community: You should know that rights are indivisible, that double standards are a disgrace of values, and that linking human rights to politics is shameful and disgusting. We are on the verge of losing confidence in you because reality reveals your orientation according to the interests of the great international powers. Human rights are indivisible.
VB: I read that Mauritania has not imposed any death sentence since 1987. Was there no judgment related to the death penalty or had the government abolished the death penalty?
MCOM: It is true that Mauritania has decided to suspend the death penalty since 1987, but that has not prevented it from applying the penalty in certain cases, as happened in 1990 when the death penalty was applied to dozens of people. Consequently, the suspension of the sentence by Mauritania is only a partial suspension, and the penalty is applicable at all times because there is no law preventing it.
VB: What is the most “popular” punishment for “infidels” in Mauritania?
MCOM: As for the so-called “infidels” in Mauritania, the penalties to which they are subjected socially vary according to their social nature.
Like what— if the concerned person is an individual, he will be referred to justice, and his social status always plays a major role in the treatment of him. If he comes from the class of masters then he will get an easier treatment. Individuals of the slave and untouchable classes are treated very harshly.
If the person concerned is a family then the families of the masters are not at all concerned with the issue, and the families descended from slaves and untouchables, the influence on them is strong, because if they do not oppose their children, they will be excluded from any relationship in society, and this is what happened with some members of my family
VB: What was the immediate thought when you were sentenced to death in front of the firing squad? Does this seem to be the most brutal form of any punishment?
MCOM: The moment of the death sentence was a strange and exceptionally brutal moment, and the strangest was the amount of joy and happiness that pervaded the people in the room. I looked at them to see a person with the slightest sign of sympathy. Everyone was happy. I looked to my left side, where the defense lawyer’s seats were completely empty, because I didn’t have a lawyer at the time.
The security guards didn’t allow me to stay any longer in the lobby until I gazed at these hate-filled faces, they took me out of the lobby and brought me back to prison, I went back to my prison cell, and after thinking long and hard about what happened, I knew I was facing a new reality and that I would be alone and that I had to face it with force.
VB: What do you think was the reason for your release? Your “apology” or did the government work under international pressure?
MCOM: I think the only reason for my release was international pressure.
VB: How did you come to France? Did the government help you?
MCOM: On the day of my release, I was leaving Mauritania for Senegal under the supervision of Mauritanian military security, where I contacted the French embassy who gave me a visa to travel to France.
VB: How is your family at home? Do they fear their lives or do they live well?
MCOM: My family lives in very difficult conditions inside Mauritania, where they suffer from social isolation and lack of access to the labor market and benefit from public service.
VB: All over the world, people talk about racism in terms of white Europeans and African-Americans, but your country has faced it with white Arabs when most of us just read that Islam does not preach any discrimination based on your birth or caste?
MCOM: In Islam, there are rules that establish social stratification, and these foundations derive from the Qur’anic verses and hadiths of the Prophet. For example, the following Hadith:
VB: God, when He created creation, sent Gabriel, so He divided the people into two parts: Arabs and non-Arabs. And the goodness of God was in the Arabs (Reference: AlMouejam Al-Awsatte Vol. 4 Page 135.)
MCOM: And, the Hadith establishes social stratification in Islam, and the examples are many.
VB: How was it possible that despite being born in one of the most marginalized communities, you were able to get a good education. What was your parents’ profession?
It can be said that I was very lucky compared to others of the same social class because my father was one of the few to be able to access education thanks to certain educational programs set up by France after independence in 1960. This opportunity allowed me to grow up in an educated family, which allowed me to achieve the level of education I attained.
My father was an administrator, and he was dismissed from all his duties, as part of the persecution of my family members who did not oppose me. As for my mother, she was a homeless housewife.
VB: Have you ever been discriminated against at school or college because of your origin? What discrimination was involved?
MCOM: Admittedly, I have suffered a lot of discrimination, injustice, and racism during my school career and at all levels of education up to university.
There are well-established sayings in the Mauritanian collective consciousness that say that the ‘Maalmine’ have no value, even if they are educated, every time I obtained a high score on a test or an exam, the teacher confronted me with these sentences instead of encouraging me, and he told me that I had been created for the ‘inferior’ manual services and that I had to do them and stop teaching.
At the undergraduate level, there was a scholarship dedicated to students in economics, especially in the accounting department, and this scholarship was given to the student who obtained the highest grade in accounting, I thought carefully about this scholarship and I decided to specialize in economics, and I focused a lot on accounting at the expense of other subjects, and at the final exam I obtained a full grade in accounting, 20 out of 20, and it was the first time that this degree was obtained in the history of the University of Nouakchott. But the shock came at the end, and I was deprived of this right because I belong to the class of ‘Maalmine’ and the scholarship was given to another student who got a bad grade compared to me, but he interceded for his social status because he belongs to the masters.
VB: Do you intend to return?
MCOM: Of course, I intend to go back, there is no precise timetable for this, and I am in contact with many Mauritanians at home and abroad, and we will not leave the country hostage to racists.
Mohamed Cheikh is one of the many humanists at risk supported by Humanists International. If you want to help us to support more activists like Mohamed Cheikh, please consider making a donation to our Protect Humanists At Risk campaign: justgiving.com/campaign/protect-humanists-at-risk