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Leaving the World of ‘Impiety’: French Salafi Settlers in Mauritania

Leaving the World of ‘Impiety’: French Salafi Settlers in Mauritania
15th March 2021 Brune Descamps
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In Insights

Since 2019, online calls for hijra to Mauritania have soared within radical Islamist communities on the Internet. ‘Hijra’ is a Quranic term repurposed by contemporary fundamentalist preachers as ‘immigration’ to a territory compliant with sharia law. It is described as a way to leave the world of ‘impiety’ for that of ‘true Islam’. In the 2000s, Syria (Damascus), Egypt (Cairo) or Yemen (Dammaj) were the designated destinations for activists of the kind, including several would-be jihadis. Mauritania is now being described as the next go-to place in the same circles. The COVID crisis did not hamper but strengthen this trend.

This Insight focuses on group messaging led by French muhajirun in Mauritania (the ones who did hijra, i.e. religious settlers or religious immigrants) between 2019 and early 2021. Even though they never call for jihad, these activists are hardliners. They describe themselves as followers of the ‘true Islam’ and call for rejecting Western values and democracies, depicting Islamic purity in opposition to ‘morally corrupted’ European societies, and strongly rejecting any form of ‘compromise’ with the latter.

Calls for hijra to Mauritania appeared on the Internet in 2014. They came from European Salafis who have settled there and depicted their experience in positive terms. Their testimonies were typically shared on the then biggest French-speaking jihadi platform Ansar al-Haqq (the Companions of the Truth). In 2017, a jihadi from northern France recounted in an interview with us how he gave up his plan to go to Syria to instead travel to Mauritania, about which “he heard great stuff.” In 2018, a news article mentioned the case of prosecuted radical activists visiting Salafi communities there. Around the same time, several Whatsapp and Telegram channels were created by French muhajirun settled in the vicinity of Nouakchott or Nouadhibou to inform relatives and former friends who stayed in Europe about the perks of hijra to Mauritania. Most of the time, these are single-gender discussion groups which gathered between 50 and 500 individuals from all walks of life.

The stated objective of the settlers is to use these platforms to call volunteers to hijra. Through propaganda-like messaging, they insist on the practicality of joining them in Mauritania. On Whatsapp, Telegram, Tam-Tam and Signal, messages convey a similar theme: settling in Mauritania is easy and within reach. They tend to underline the same aspects, framed to attract a Western audience.

1) Security: ‘There have been no attacks in Mauritania in the past 12 years’.

2) Health: ‘Diseases are rare,’ ‘the country is AIDS free’. During the spring 2020 lockdown in Europe in the wake of the COVID crisis, settlers mocked France’s situation, stating that the pandemic has been ‘admirably handled’ where they lived.

3) Finance: videos show luxury homes, spacious kitchens, and low rent, ‘ranging from 35 euros to 150 for palaces’.

Aside from these practicalities, settlers describe their close-knit communities as Salafi heaven on earth, being governed by Islamic law and guided by religious purity. They insist that women’s and children’s purity is preserved. The formers by wearing the niqab or sitar (fully covering Islamic veils), the latter by being educated in Quranic schools and sheltered from ‘morally corrupted’ Western ‘indoctrination’. Comments can have strong political inclinations too, such as Umm Sulaiman’s to her women-only Telegram community. She describes France as “the motherland of atheism and number one enemy of Islam and Muslims”. She admonishes her followers who still live there: how “naïve and stupid” they are, for they think “their religion is safe in the unholy homeland of the 1789 revolution.” She also accuses France of “taking children away from those who refuse gender theories, gay marriage and female-male equality.” She also uses some anti-vaccine conspiracies widely shared on social media to explain that the medical response to the pandemic “kills more than it heals.” And eventually, she concludes: in her opinion, if Muslims live in France, it is only because of the generosity of the French welfare system, a “drug” and “a barrier on the way to piety.”

These statements are accompanied by photographs and footage of simple moments of joy, traditional meals and beautiful landscapes. But it goes further than that. To a certain extent, prominent settlers are also entrepreneurs of a confidential hijra system. In the chatrooms, those who stay in Europe are asked to make donations to those who made their way there, presented as ‘brave’. Those who live in Europe are also called to financially support certain activities of the muhajirun. This gives shape to the small and informal economy of the hijra phenomenon.

This hijra phenomenon in Mauritania is currently difficult to quantify. In France, up to a hundred people could be involved. Though small, these communities are constantly in touch with activists elsewhere in France and Europe, discussing as the above shows a wide range of subjects. These links between Europe and certain Salafi centres in the Middle East and North Africa are commonly disregarded and remain quite undocumented in most of the literature on Western radicalism. Yet, they undoubtedly play a big role in the development and connections of local support networks for radical Islamist movements.