Cablegate: Speaker Visit Furthers Quiet Diplomacy

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1. IIP Speaker Mohammed Bashar Arafat visited Nouakchott from
November 23 until November 26 2008. During this time, he gave
presentations on Islam In America to two universities in Nouakchott,
the University of Nouakchott (11/24) and the Islamic Institute,
ISERI (11/25) reaching over 600 students in total and visited a
local Mahadra where he lectured 30 students (11/26). He led evening
prayers at Imam Enahwhi's Noor Mosque (11/24) and afternoon prayers
for local staff at the US Embassy on (11/26). Imam Arafat met and
shared meals in intimate settings with the most important local
religious leaders from the range of local ethnic and religious

2. The English-language Lecture at the University of Nouakchott
English Department was to a standing room of almost 300 students who
listened attentively, took notes, and asked pertinent questions for
eventual class papers. The University houses one of Mauritania's
only two American Corners, which is overused and exceedingly
popular. The 1,600 student Faculty of English produces all of the
country's future Fulbright scholars and many eventual International
Visitors. They were all given copies of the French and English
"Islam in America" booklets and many requested Imam Arafat's
autograph upon departure from the Auditorium. The audience included
3rd and 4th year English students, PhD students, professors, and
journalists. The embassy's relationship with the University is very
important and English language speakers addressing topics of mutual
interest reinforces this relationship. The Dean of the English
Department, former IV Mamadou Diawara gave Imam Arafat's
introduction. Students asked questions about whether our visitor
felt prejudiced against as a Moslem in America, whether the US had
any problems with offensive cartoons like the Danish and whether
Islam was growing in America. Imam Arafat took this opportunity to
reinforce the respect for diversity in American society however
mentioning that he too faced problems with border security at
airports. A dinner with Imam Hamden, President of the Association of
Ulemas, led to in-depth discussion of the philosophical meaning of
many theological practices in Islam and the concept of tolerance in
the Koran. They also discussed projects that would allow young Imams
to learn English in the US, sending 5-7 from Mauritania to the US
for such a linguistic, but also cultural, exchange.

3. The lecture at the Islamic Institute ISERI, widely regarded as a
hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, included a full audience of over
250 students, professors and leaders. The Islamic Institute houses
the second of the two Embassy sponsored American corners in
Mauritania. The presentation was well received, but a staged
intervention by the extremist political party and a professor hurled
anti-American remarks unrelated to Islam in America and purely
political in nature. It should be noted that on a prior trip to
ISERI the SSI speaker was boycotted. Given the politically hostile
environment this reception was expected, and the grace and humility
with which Imam Arafat reacted to such interventions and turned them
into opportunities for discussion was remarkable. As a leading
intellectual and most influential and important journalist in
Mauritania, the meeting with Abou Maali and Imam Arafat was an
important introduction where issues handicapping the Arab world were
discussed such as old dictators, new intolerance and occupation, all
which he sees as mutually reinforcing one another. During the
dinner at the Charge's a diverse array of key religious (Pulaar and
Soninke Imams) and intellectual leaders (journalists) sat at one
table discussing Islam in America and America's current policy
towards Mauritania.

4. The lecture at the Mahadra addressed over 30 upper level Islamic
students from Mauritania, Algeria and Mali on Islam in America and
Imam Arafat's visits to the region to promote this. He reinforced
his opinion that Muslims need to take advantage of technology to
learn English and become more capable of interacting on a global
scale. Some students criticized "the new Muslim way of learning
Islam" when it leads to terrorism. They explained that their
Mahadra's Islamic theology focuses on tolerance and open dialogue
with others. This meeting was followed by a personal meeting with
Pulaar Imam Ball Mohamed Bechir, an Afro-Mauritanian Imam who had
met Arafat on a previous trip. Bechir promised to visit Baltimore
and give lectures at Arafat's mosque when he comes for his next
annual Ramadan visit to the US in August.

5. A lunchtime roundtable discussion at the US Embassy cafeteria was
a resounding success with almost 50 local staff and Americans
sitting in on the power-point presentation and lively Q and A.
Afterwards, local staff invited Imam Arafat to lead their afternoon
prayer. It was an opportunity for everyone, Mauritanians and
Americans alike, to learn about Moslems in America and exactly what
a speaker presents to the local public when he travels. Discussion
went well over the hour and a half time limit and many stayed on to
speak with Imam Arafat individually, over lunch.

6. Post considers this successful program to have come at a very
opportune moment for Mauritania-American relations. Given the tense
political environment, in which the US is being blamed for having
taking the staunchest stance against the August 6th military coup,
proffering the quickest sanctions and not budging, it was important

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to rekindle a religious and cultural dialogue devoid of overt
political implications. It furthers post's priority MSP of
hastening a reinstitution of democracy and promotes mutual
understanding (Muslem Outreach) and national unity (Mauritanian,
between White Moors, Black Moors and Afro-Mauritanians).

7. Given to target audiences, through personal narrative and
historical anecdote, Imam Arafat introduced a heretofore unknown
Moslem American population and explained how their civil liberties
are protected and advanced. Imam Arafat offered a landscape running
counter to the international media focus on US policy to the Moslem
world and repression of Moslem's civil liberties in the US. Instead
he explained the freedom and flourishing of their population and
their continuations to the worldwide Moslem population. He
highlighted the true nature of Islam that is often manipulated by
extremists the world over and encouraged all to embrace this form of
Islam, germane to Mauritania's Malachite Sufism. His power point
presentation, with illustrative photographs of historical
Moslem-American figures and exchange programs in renowned capitals
of significance for Moslems, sparked a dialogue on a topic of mutual
knowledge, the history of Islam, but through the lens of a Moslem
American. Through this medium Imam Arafat was able to build bridges
of dialogue with interlocutors who have been less willing to engage
due to the current political situation. In small meetings with
influential Imams, over meals and with their families, he engaged in
deep, philosophical and textual Koranic debates, advancing these
relationships. Many meetings ended with the promise of further
engagement and collaboration on projects of mutual interest
including interfaith exchanges and the opening of a new Islamic

8. Through numerous small encounters, Imam Arafat cemented
friendships with many key Mauritanian Imams sharing his Sufi Islamic
approach or simply his commitment to interfaith dialogue and the
advancement of a tolerant form of Islam. An example of the fruit of
such an encounter, was the official invitation Imam Hafed Enahwi
gave to Imam Arafat for him to return to Mauritania in March 2009 to
attend the large and important annual Sufi leaders conference, this
year's topic: "Moderate Islam and Globalization." This annual
symposium is important and heavily attended, attracting Sufi Moslems
from around the world, the total number of attendees often exceeding
1,000. His attendance would be important to advance not only
Mission interest, but also those of his NGO and Mauritanian Islam.

9. Imam Arafat's presentations highlighting the commonalities
between American Moslems and their international counterparts
revealed a side of America many had never thought existed and his
message of renewed dialogue, and the naturally pacifistic nature of
Islam resounded. Following the hijacking of the debate as the
Islamic institute, Imam Arafat asked students to raise their hands
to show support if they wanted him to continue. The implication
being that his message of tolerance and interfaith dialogue had
resonated and all but three students raised their hands. The impact
of such rhetorical question is clear: despite a clear manipulation
of the gathering by the administration to its own political end, to
spark an Anti-American political protest, the students had made up
their own minds and were interested in hearing about the message of
tolerance and interfaith dialogue that Imam Arafat furthered. This
type of exemplary reaction embodied grace and wisdom and served as a
model for many students. It was clear that many Mauritanians were
encouraged in hearing that Muslims in America are becoming very
active and many expressed optimism in the wake of Obama's election.

10. Given the current Mauritanian political context post was
careful to craft a program that would avoid situations that would
place our guest in a position of having to defend or address US
policy, which is currently highly contested, controversial and
openly opposed. Therefore, large gatherings and press conferences
were avoided. Already, we heard rumblings that through the Imam's
visit the US was trying to "keep the door open" while politically
closing the door, through sanctions, or as one student put it, using
the Imam's visit as a way for the US "clean their dirty face". We
focused instead on quiet diplomacy, allowing dialogue to unfold in
intimate settings. This proved equally fruitful with key influencers
spending extended time with Imam Arafat, developing trust and
looking to the future of increased cooperation.


© Scoop Media

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