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Africa Workshop “How to get away with blasphemy: the politics of religious offense in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania”.

Zekeriah Ahmed Salem (Political Science, Northwestern)

On April 27, 2012, Birame Abeid, a renowned Mauritanian activist planned carefully and executed the public burning of several books of Islamic jurisprudence. Nearly two years later,​ ​in December 2014, Muhamed Mkhaitir, a blogger claiming to speak for the community of “blacksmiths”, published a lengthy text in which he accuses the Prophet Muhammad himself of “favoritism." Both offenders claimed afterwards they only wanted to denounce the ways in which the local elite has been consistently using Islam and Sharia to sanction the oppression/marginalization of former slaves and other occupational groups. In so doing, these human rights activists have indeed thrown their country, a self-proclaimed Islamic Republic, into an uproar. As they no doubt must have expected, their unprecedented religious offenses sparked nationwide protests. With few exceptions, almost all political figures and religious elites campaigned for their execution for “apostasy” in accordance with the (Islamic) law of the land. Yet, despite being promptly arrested and thrown in jail, the two “defendants” were ultimately able to essentially get away with blasphemy. In this presentation, I draw on a treasure trove of qualitative data collected on the field over several years in order to demonstrate that, at least in this context, what is at stake in these "blasphemy controversies” has less to do with the usual tension between secular criticism and religious censure and more to do with ongoing public negotiations over what it means to be Muslims amid heated political debates over race, gender, social hierarchies, belonging, citizenship and inequality. Shifting the focus away from the usual framing of blasphemy accusations in terms of conflict between religious freedom and Islamic taboos, I offer a detailed comparative account of these two “cases” in order to go beyond the notion that “outdated, medieval blasphemy laws” illustrate the so-called stand-off between Islam and liberal democratic values.”

Zekeriah Ould Ahmed Salem is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and Director of The Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa in the Program of African Studies. He specializes in Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa in comparative perspective. His research engages contemporary academic debates regarding religion and politics, especially the interplay in contemporary African societies of a variety of issues such as: the state, religious authority, race, social hierarchies, identity politics, Islamic knowledge and political power. Ahmed Salem secondary research interests include everyday negotiations over citizenship, bureaucratization and the Institutionalization of the state in Africa.

He is the author of: Prêcher dans le Desert: Islam, Politique et Changement Social en Mauritanie (published by Karthala, Paris, in 2013, with an English translation forthcoming as Preaching in the Desert: Islam, Politics and Social Change in Mauritania) and the editor of: Trajectoires d’un Etat-Frontière. Espaces, Evolutions Politiqiues et Transformations Sociales en Mauritanie (Dakar, Council for The Development of Social Research In Africa, Book Series: 2004).
His research appeared in numerous book chapters. His journal articles are published in : The Journal of North African Studies, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Nomadic Peoples, Cahiers d’études africaines, Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara, Politique Africaine, Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, L’Ouest Saharien….
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When and Where

Map Haven Hall - 4701 (DAAS Conference Room)

April 2019

4:00pm - 6:00pm

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