Mauritania is an explicitly Islamic state, and its citizens are essentially required to be Muslim, though a small number of foreigners practice other faiths. Blasphemy and apostasy are both punishable by death, though less severe instances of blasphemy may result in imprisonment only. Actual instances of prosecutions of these crimes, while not nonexistent, are rare—due perhaps in part to the fact that nearly all residents are Muslim, and perhaps in part due to the stifling effect that such draconian legislation has on the willingness of dissenters to speak.
An Islamic, predominantly Sunni, republic since independence in 1960, Mauritania officialized Islam as the state religion in 1985. Today, the country’s religious character is all-encompassing; only Muslims may be citizens. As part of a Pew study in 2013, Mauritania was ranked twelfth among the most religiously restrictive countries in the world, between Indonesia and Pakistan.
Islam arrived in Mauritania via Arab merchants around the 8th century. Islamization and Arabization, were kick-started by the Almoravid conquest of the Maghreb, and would continue to solidify with the arrival of Yemeni Arabs from the 12-13th century.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
Mauritania became a French protectorate in 1903, then an official colony in 1920. French involvement was similar to the British policy of “indirect rule:” relying on existing Islamic religious leaders to carry out their policies. Traditional administrators of Islamic justice, qadis, were put on the French payroll without supervision. The first Mauritanian constitution, adopted in March 1959, was modeled on the French constitution. The language of the document regarding the endorsement of religion is contradictory: at once declares unailienable human rights and freedom of religion, and proclaiming Islam the religion of the state. Islam became a tool of resistance against the French, with leaders condemning "any collaboration with the occupiers” as “a betrayal of Islam.” Islamization grew in tandem with Mauritania’s enmeshment with Arab states; Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait provided the country with military and economic assistance.
An independent Mauritania declared itself an “Islamic republic” in October 1958, and adopted a new constitution in March 1959 in place of the French constitution. This constitution was overturned in 1985 by the Constitutional Charter of the Military Committee for National Salvation, which declared Islam the state religion and sharia the only source of law. In 1973, Mauritania strengthened its ties to the Arab world, leaving the West Africa Monetary Union and the Franc Zone, and joining the Arab League by 1974. Under Ould Taya, the military was purged of non-Arab officers, and hundreds of officers were sent to Iraq, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria for training.
Today, Islam is a fully functional part of the Mauritanian legal system. Apostasy is punishable by death according to article 306 of the penal code, to “every Muslim, man or woman, who ridicules or insults Allah”, his messenger, his teachings, or any of his prophets, “even if [the accused] repents.” Non-Muslims are restricted from citizenship, and those Muslims who convert from Islam lose their citizenship and property rights. The Press Act prohibits the publication of any material that contradicts or threatens Islam.
Rather than a vestige of French law, these prescriptions are expressions of Islamic character of the country, a character which preceded French arrival. If any external power accelerated Islamization and, subsequently, blasphemy and apostasy laws, it would be Moroccan and Saudi influence on which Mauritania depended economically and militarily at several times during its history.
Sharia as the nominal source of law de-facto prohibits blasphemy, though the extent to which this has been actually implemented is not well documented. It may be more accurate to say, then, that Islamization established the groundwork for later, stricter applications of blasphemy punishments in Mauritania.