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Cablegate: First Ever Moslem American Couple Visit Cements New

VZCZCXRO5898
RR RUEHMA RUEHPA
DE RUEHNK #0619/01 2711239
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 281239Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY NOUAKCHOTT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8797
INFO RUEHZK/ECOWAS COLLECTIVE
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 1216

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 NOUAKCHOTT 000619

STATE PLS PASS TO MILLENIUM CHALLENGE CORP

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KISL KMDR PREL MR PGOV PHUM SOCI KCOR KPAO NG
SUBJECT: FIRST EVER MOSLEM AMERICAN COUPLE VISIT CEMENTS NEW
RELATIONSHIP WITH MAURITANIA

1. Summary: IIP and ARS speakers Mrs. Fatima (Jane) Casewit and
Mr. Daoud (Stephen) Casewit visited Mauritania from September 6th -
10th, 2009. Post capitalized on the timing of their visit to
refresh recently renewed ties with the Mauritanian government
through informal gatherings with local government, religious and
civil society leaders. The couple met with the Minister of Islamic
Affairs alongside the Ambassador (9/7), visited a well-known local
Islamic charity and distributed US government assistance (9/8), met
with the directors and went on a tour of the Islamic Institute's
Manuscript Conservation Lab and American Corner (9/8), led a
roundtable discussion with 30 University students on Islam in
America(9/9) and spoke flawless Arabic to a crowd of mostly local
Imams at the over 150 person annual Embassy Iftar (9/9). They
attended informal Iftar dinners nightly to break the fast with local
religious leaders, journalists and civil society leaders. Their
pioneering visit - the first of a Moslem American woman and Moslem
American couple to Mauritania - was very well received and helped
post cement important ties and gain access to local religious and
civil society leaders at a critical moment for US - Mauritania
relations.

2. On Monday September 7th US Ambassador Mark Boulware and Daoud and
Fatima Casewit met with the newly appointed Minister of Islamic
Affairs Ahmed Ould Neini. While there Neini led an animated
discussion in Arabic with the Casewits on tolerance in Islam
explaining that Islam privileges non-Moslems living in Moslem
countries by giving them more rights than Moslems. This discussion
took place almost three months after an American citizen was
murdered in the capital city Nouakchott. Minister Neini was very
pleased to meet the couple, and the meeting proved fruitful as the
Minister spoke two days later alongside Fatima and Daoud at the
Embassy sponsored Iftar (para 8 & 9).

3. On their first evening in Mauritania the prominent Islamic
Scholar Imam Hamden the US Ambassador Mark Boulware and his wife
Nora Jean Boulware as well as Fatima, Daoud and the Public Affairs
Section to an Iftar at his home. Much of the evening conversation
focused on terrorism. Imam Hamden is very active and enthusiastic
about joining forces and methodology in the fight against terrorism.
He believes that the biggest challenge facing moderate imams and
religious leaders is the refusal of extremists to speak with them
and listen to their ideas. This conversation came amidst an upsurge
of extremist activity in Mauritania and calls from civil society to
create a dialogue with alleged Salafists in prison. Immediately
following the Iftar, the Casewits went to the Olympic Stadium where
they joined hundreds of Mauritanian's in the nightly Tarawith
prayer, where Mauritanian men and women pray in separate rings
around the stadium during Ramadan.

4. On Tuesday September 8th the Casewits and a delegation from the
Public Affairs Section went on an official visit of the well known
Mauritanian Islamic interfaith NGO El Awkaf. The delegation brought
200 sanitary kits, t-shirts and backpacks donated by the US Embassy
to add to their daily Ramadan food distribution to needy families.
The director of the NGO, Ahmed Mahmoud Nahwi explained to the
delegation that the Mauritanian charity began in the countryside
giving out animals (cows, goats and camels) and adapted to modern
demands in 1982 with donations of food, houses and land. The main
goal of the charity, according to the director, is to effectively
distribute the wealth of generous Mauritanians to the poor.

5. Following El Awkaf, next door at the Institute for the Advanced
Study of Islam, ISERI, the Casewit's met with the Director, Sidi
Mohamed Ould Mayaba, his brother, as well as the head of research
Ahmed Taleb Salem. Mayaba explained that ISERI, the most prominent
Islamic institute in Mauritania with over 5,000 students, hopes that
the election of President Aziz and his recognition as Mauritania's
president signals a new era of bilateral relations and increased
cooperation with the US Embassy. The University's Manuscript Lab
was funded through a 2002 donation of 25,000$ and a 2009 donation of
12,500$ from the Embassy's Ambassador's Fund for Cultural
Preservation. The visit gave the Casewits an opportunity to see a
part of Mauritania's unique cultural heritage, perusing through 11th
century handwritten manuscripts and seeing firsthand how US support
has helped preserve and promote this legacy. Through these funds,
the lab has acquired air conditioning, aluminum and glass casings,
cardboard to protect individual manuscripts, and computers and
scanners for a digital library. Around the corner from the lab the
University's American Corner provides English learning materials,
Arabic and English literature and 8 computers with internet access.


6. That evening, Deputy Chief of Mission Dennis Hankins and his
wife Mira Hankins hosted an Iftar at their home for the visiting
speakers and guests. Of 24 total invitees, the 16 men and 8 women
came mostly from civil society, among them prominent journalists and
human rights advocates. At the two men's tables topics of local
politics and terrorism in the Maghreb were discussed. Local
journalists complained that the Algerian press publishes in an ever

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increasing volume misinformation on "terrorists in the desert" in an
effort to manipulate regional public opinion. At the women's table,
topics pertaining to Mauritanian women in particular, including
slavery, girl's education, forced feeding and trafficking were
discussed. Two prominent women's advocates, the geologist and
Mauritanian television personality Irhabia Mint Abdel Wedoud and
anti-slavery advocate and Deputy at the National Assembly Malouma
Mint Bilal, spouse of renowned former slave Boubacar Messaoud,
shared conflicting opinions on the persistence of slavery in
Mauritanian society and local political will to eradicate the
practice. The Iftar was covered favorably on two websites with
photos, a French and an Arabic site:
http://www.tawary.com/spip.php?article112;
http://www.rim-asso.org/spip.php?article582.

7. On Wednesday September 9th, Fatima and Daoud met with 30
students from the English Department at the University of Nouakchott
and local staff and Americans. They first introduced themselves and
asked the audience to do the same and then explained the story of
their discovery of and conversion to Islam in Morocco. Fatima
stressed the participation of Moslem women their communities giving
the example of Moslem-American women lawyers in the Washington DC
NGO Karamah which defends Moslems' human rights in the US. She also
talked about how American Moslems observe the holy month of Ramadan
in the US by distributing free meals to the needy. Students were
very interested in discussing US foreign policy in Moslem countries
and the issue of terrorism. They felt that Americans need to make a
clear-cut distinction between Islam and terrorism - something that
is blurred for them in the international press. There was also a
lively discussion of the religious and philosophical basis of jihad
in Islam, and everyone agreed that the terrorist acts portrayed by
the media have nothing to do with Islam. They spoke of the two
jihads, the one within oneself as opposed to the external; the
former being paramount to Islam. Some students talked about the
place of other religions (Christianity and Judaism) in Islam, and
advocated tolerance between the world's main religions. This
discussion was planned for one hour, but was so absorbing for the
speakers and audience that it lasted almost three hours. All
invitees were given IIP publications on Moslems and Moselm life in
America in Arabic and English.

8. Later that evening at the annual Embassy Iftar over 150 local
Imams - and for the first time prominent women including two
recently appointed Ministers - attended. Due to threats of rain,
the venue was changed at the last minute and the Embassy tennis
court was transformed with tents, traditional rugs, mattresses and
pillows, and two separate eating areas for men and women were
created. Thousands of copies of IIP publications including "Being
Moslem in America", "Islam in the USA" and "Barack Obama: In His Own
Words" in Arabic, French and English were placed on each invitees
dinner table and offered as parting gifts on the way out. After the
prayer was broadcast through speakers to the audience and the fast
was broken, guests left for two separate male and female prayer
areas. Ambassador Boulware then gave remarks focusing on the
President Obama's outreach to the Moslem and African worlds,
exemplified in his Cairo and Accra speeches, and the mutual
challenges facing Mauritania and the US with respect to the wave of
violent extremism confronting the world as a whole. Following this,
Mauritanian Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Neini thanked the
Ambassador and welcomed again Fatima and Daoud to Mauritania, who he
had met earlier in the week. Next, Fatima spoke about her special
experience with Islam highlighting that it has taught her many
lessons - one of the most important - to be patient. Daoud spoke
next and explained that he is not the typical American Moslem
because he has spent decades in the Arab world. He retraced his
story with Islam and mainly his altered and improved relationship
with his parents after converting to Islam from Christianity. He
explained that visiting Mauritania had long been a dream for he and
Fatima and he was very thankful to be sharing the holy month in the
special historic land of Mauritania.

9. Many distinguished VIPs attended including an official delegation
comprised of the Minister of Interior and Decentralization, Mohamed
Ould Boilil, representing the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moulaty
Mint Moctar, Minister of Social affairs, Children and Family, Maty
Mint Hammady, Commissary In charge of Promotion of Investments,
Diabira Baccary, President Aziz' Advisor, Mohamed Ould Sidi
Secretary General of Foreign Affairs and Ahmed Ould Hamza, Mayor of
Nouakchott. National television and radio stations, TV Mauritanie
and Radio Mauritanie covered the event and played coverage of the
Ambassador speech several times a day in both Arabic and French,
over the period of 4 days.

10. On the morning of Thursday September 10th Fatima visited Mariam
Diallo's Orphanage, the sole of its kind in Mauritania where over 30
children live currently. Mrs. Diallo is a local hero who has
rescued abandoned children for decades, bringing them up in a loving
and supportive environment. The embassy has a long and sustained
relationship with her institution, having at one point donated the

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van that sends the childen to school daily. Fatima encouraged the
shy youth to recite Koranic verses and praised their knowledge and
memory. Fatima also helped distribute backpacks and hygiene kits to
the children.

11. Later in the afternoon, Fatima gave a presentation focusing on
Moslem Women in America at the human rights NGO conglomerate Forum
National de Droits de L'Homme, FONADH. There were a total of 30
civil society leaders in attendance, and one journalist; mainly
women and several men. The controversial head of the NGO protecting
trafficked women, AFCF (Association Femmes Chef des Familles),
Aminetou Mint Moctar, mentioned that in a recent speech given by the
Imam of the Central Mosque in Nouakchott he said that Moslem women
should not work, cannot lead a Moslem country. He justified this by
explaining that the traditional centers of Islamic learning never
allowed female participation. In response, Aminatou wrote an
editorial in the popular French online site CRIDEM decrying his
message and explaining that it is precisely that very sentiment that
is keeping women behind and preventing Mauritanian society from
progressing. Lalla Aicha Sy, a vocal lawyer and NGO director, said
that Mauritanian men prefer their wives stay at home and remain
ignorant. Many women agreed that this sentiment does not reflect
the practices of early Islam as the Prophet himself asked questions
regarding the rules of purification for women and on many occasions
women in the Prophet's household were the interlocutors and even the
interpreters of the religious guidance that affected women's ritual
purity. Diattabe Diop, a journalist from the French language weekly
L'Eveil Hebdo covered the event for the papers Senegalese edition in
mid-September and is planning to print a similar article for the
Mauritanian version in late September.

12. Impact: A long-term dream realized for Fatima and Daoud,
visiting Mauritania was a special trip for them and the mission
alike. Having lived in neighboring Morocco for decades and having
had a son who spent time in a rural Mahadra in Mauritania, Fatima
and Daoud integrated seamlessly and felt very at home in Mauritania.
This was evident in their interactions with Mauritanians who often
commented on their linguistic and cultural knowledge. Through their
excellent language skills, with flawless Arabic and French, post
gained access to new audiences and leaders and took advantage to
meet and cement relationships. These meetings proved especially
fruitful helping post further main public diplomacy MSP goals. As a
pioneer, Fatima is the first female American Moslem and together,
they are the first couple and family that post has ever hosted.
Informal reactions were overwhelmingly positive, many Mauritanians
were surprised to meet an American couple with no Arabic roots, who
spoke Arabic so well and knew and had studied their culture and
religion. Over 300 people met personally with Fatima and Daoud, and
through media coverage in print, radio and television, the number
reached is over 1,000 and spans regionally.

13. Challenges: Programming during Ramadan in the hottest period in
Mauritania is very challenging for visitors and staff alike.
Universities are closed and events are at a minimum during the day.
In addition, Mauritania experienced the heavy rain and flooding
plaguing the entire West African region just before their visit.
Power outages affected even the best hotel where the couple was
staying, adding to the challenges. Despite these issues, the program
was a smash hit, in large part due to the flexibility and
adaptability of our guests. Special thanks go to AF/PD Deputy
Director Bruce Wharton and ARS Director Donna Winton for their
support without which the program would not have been possible.

HANKINS

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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