Moderate revivalists: Islamic inroads in sub-Saharan Africa

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Author: Ousmane Kane
Date: Summer 2007
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 29, Issue 2)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,421 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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There are approximately three hundred million African Muslims in the world, which comprises roughly one-third of the African continent's population. But despite this fairly large Muslim population and Islam's historical presence in Africa, African Islam has remained largely neglected in the study of Muslim politics. This neglect was to a large extent the result of an academic division of labor based on the assumption that Africa was only superficially Islamized. However, the truth is that many parts of Africa have been incorporated into the world of Islam for a long time. African Muslims have adhered to and practiced the main pillars of Islam--including the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim--for more than a millennium.

During the European colonial conquest of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial troops faced fierce resistance from organized religious political Islamic movements, including the Tijaniyya in Senegal and Mali and the Libyan Sanusiyya in the Sahara and Niger. After the establishment of colonial domination and the creation of French, British, and Portuguese-controlled territories, the movement of Muslims across the Sahara was considerably restricted by colonial governments that wanted to prevent the rise of transnational Islamic solidarities. This isolation of African Muslims ended with the collapse of colonial rule after World War II, at which point they began to enjoy greater freedom of movement and agency. Political independence also ushered in an era of charismatic leaders, such as Sukarno in Indonesia, Nehru in India, Nasser in Egypt, and Nkrumah in Ghana, all of whom sought to promote solidarity within the "Southern" bloc by way of the Non-Aligned Movement and various other bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements. Within the framework of such cooperation between southern countries, predominantly Muslim states in the Middle East and Africa were encouraged to develop closer relations based on a common Islamic heritage.

These connections between African Muslims and the rest of the Islamic world laid the foundation for the strong revival of Islam that occurred in the 1970s. This revival, although originating in the Middle East, gained momentum in Africa and led to a new wave of Islamist groups that sought to enact a series of social changes in the region. But contrary to general consensus in the West, these groups have no real aspirations for political power and do not adopt methods of Islamic extremism or jihadism. Indeed, such extremist ideologies and movements have had very little success in gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Afro-Arab Relations After Independence

The attainment of political independence in Asia and Africa led to a rebuilding of ties that had been restricted or severed during colonial rule. Several North African and Middle Eastern Arab countries were keen to promote Islamic education in sub-Saharan Africa. From the early 1960s onwards, Egypt and Morocco strengthened their ties with many West African states. The Moroccan presence in West Africa, it must be noted, goes back to the sixteenth century when Morocco conquered the Songhai Empire and made it a province of the Moroccan kingdom. Another source of Moroccan influence in West Africa has been the spread of the Morocco-based Tijaniyya Sufi order, which millions of Black Africans have embraced. King Hassan of Morocco developed personal friendships with many West African politicians and religious leaders. Grants were provided to thousands of African graduates of the local Islamic scholarly tradition to pursue higher education in Moroccan institutions. These close ties continue to be cultivated by the current ruler of Morocco, Muhammad VI.

Next to Morocco, Egypt has done the most to strengthen relations with African nations in the postcolonial period. A nationalist, socialist, and towering figure of Thirdworldism, Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, also believed in pan-Islamic solidarity. Under his leadership, Egyptian universities were opened to Muslims from all over the world, with the result that thousands of Africans have attended and graduated from Al Azhar and other Egyptian universities. In addition, Al Azhar has maintained a policy of sending thousands of teachers to staff private and public schools in predominantly Muslim, sub-Saharan African states.

In the 1970s, several other Middle Eastern governments developed an interest in extending their influence into sub-Saharan Africa. Muammar Khaddafi of Libya, for example, attempted through various means to extend his influence south of the Sahara. The International Islamic Call was a tool of Libyan imperial policy, many branches of which were established in African countries that sponsored Islamic institutions and activities. However, a number of countries also reacted against Libya's destabilizing influence in Africa by breaking diplomatic relations with Khaddafi's government.

In the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic revolution, the predominantly Muslim states of sub-Saharan Africa became the site of a struggle for influence between Shi'a Iran and the Sunni conservative countries of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, for example, through various Islamic NGOs such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly for Muslim Youth, and the Federation of Arab and Islamic Schools, attempted to promote a conservative Wahhabi Islam that denounced Sufi Islam, the prevailing Islamic order in Africa as "heterodox." Saudi NGOs sponsored the building of mosques and various Islamic centers, many of which were run by Africans of Wahhabi persuasion who had been trained in the Middle East. Saudi NGOs also distributed fundamentalist literature and academic scholarships to further extend their influence.

Then when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sided with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, the latter reacted by denouncing such regimes as corrupt and conservative. Iran responded by attempting to win the sympathy of Muslims all over the world, including those in Africa. It distributed abundant literature stigmatizing the conservative ruling family in Saudi Arabia. The effect of all this was that by the late 1980s, predominantly Muslim African states had been exposed to many of the wider ideological trends in the Muslim world. In urban areas, Islamic education underwent a radical transformation with the emergence of modern private schools established by graduates from Arab universities. In response to these forces, a new range of Muslim identities in Africa began to emerge.

The result of these developments was a shift on the continent from an overwhelmingly Sufi-inspired Islam to greater religious diversity among African Muslims. And even though African Islam remains primarily Sunni, Shi'a have been able to make significant inroads in countries like Nigeria. In addition, fundamentalists inspired by Saudi Wahhabism, a group that was virtually nonexistent when African states first gained independence, are now an integral part of the religious landscape.

The Impact of the New Islamic Revivalism

The failure of various ideologies to bring prosperity and social justice to the Arab world in the 1970s, as well as repeated Arab defeats against Israel, led to the discrediting of many nationalist regimes. This also coincided with the rise of Islamist groups, who became the most outspoken critics of these governments. Boosted by the success of the Iranian revolution, Islamists believed that Islam could provide an alternative to nationalist autocracy, and their movements proliferated in the Arab world. By the early 21st century, Islamists had succeeded in capturing political power in several countries, including Afghanistan, Sudan, and Pakistan. In others, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, they have succeeded in gaining significant representation in parliament. And in repressive regimes like Algeria and Saudi Arabia, some Islamists have resorted to terror, which targets not only local governments but also Western establishments.

In contrast to these more radical movements, the Islamic revival in Africa tended to be marked by a relatively moderate brand of Islamism. The proponents of Islamism in Africa generally aspire to be governed by an Islamic order, and some of them even overtly condemn the principle of secularism that officially governs most African states. But their goals do not include capturing political power and imposing an Islamic system of government, nor do they resort to violence. Rather, they seek to purify the practice of Islam by eradicating the veneration of holy persons typical of Sufi Islam and by imposing the wearing of the veil. Their actions are directed toward the Muslim community at large. They attempt to transform society through education--they open schools, run radio shows and television programs, organize lectures, sponsor summer camps and programs, and publish books and pamphlets.

Because they preach greater religiosity, denounce corruption, advocate greater egalitarianism in religion and society, and strive to promote an Islamic order peacefully, moderate revivalists have held a great appeal among sections of the population traditionally not attracted to religious groups, including educated women and the urban middle class. The number of veiled women on university campuses has increased considerably in many predominantly Muslim countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Many educated professionals such as doctors, engineers, and business people are being attracted by such religious groups and are sponsoring their activities. The fact that these groups attract a middle class not inclined to violence is a likely explanation for the relative moderation of Muslim revivalists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Salafi Jihadism and Islamic Terrorism

At the end of the Cold War, a new trend emerged within Islamic revival groups called Salafi jihadism. At first, it crystallized around the Al Qaeda organization created by Osama bin Laden with the blessing and support of US, Pakistani, and Saudi intelligence services. After fighting against and contributing to the defeat of the Soviet Union, Al Qaeda turned against the very regimes that had supported it with a series of terrorist attacks that culminated in the September 11th attacks on the United States. During the last few years, Al Qaeda has transformed itself from an organization to an ideology that targets Western states and their allies in the Middle East.

The question of how this new ideology is impacting Africa has been raised in many academic and policymaking circles, particularly because Al Qaeda has recruited operatives from many countries, including some from sub-Saharan Africa. But the only real threat of Salafi jihadism taking root in sub-Saharan Africa thus far has come from the Salafi Group of Predication and Combat (SGPC), which proclaims allegiance to Al Qaeda. According to French intelligence services, this group operates in the triangle of Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger. In June 2005, operatives of SGPC attacked a Mauritanian military base, killing 15 soldiers and wounding 17 others. Since then, the Mauritanian government has arrested 30 operatives of the group, which has now adopted the name "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb." As recently as March 2007, a group of terrorists composed of three Algerians and four Mauritanian soldiers suspected of being terrorists were arrested in Nouakchott, but at this stage it has not been ascertained as to whether or not they are SGPC operatives.

As demonstrated by numerous initiatives such as the African Growth Opportunity Act, which was created to promote African development, the United States is developing a growing interest in Africa, an interest that is not based entirely on altruistic motivations. Gaining access to African oil reserves could help the United States reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which is an important factor in determining a new US interest in the region. In addition, the war on terror and its efforts to limit the effectiveness of Islamist organizations have created a consensus among US policymakers that an active campaign in Africa to combat terrorist influence is necessary.

Somalia and the Sahel, the two Horn of Africa regions where the SGPC operates and which have recently witnessed the rise and decline of Islamic militancy, have been declared the two most important zones in the US war on terror. Indeed the United States seems to be taking the possibility that jihadi organizations may be spreading in Africa very seriously. Since September 11th, the United States has developed two plans to help African countries face the challenge of terror. The first is the Pan-Sahel Initiative through which the Pentagon provided logistical support to four Sahelian countries (Mauritiania, Mali, Niger, and Chad) to help them better control their porous borders and track down SGPC operatives. The Pan-Sahel Initiative has been recently renamed the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative. It has been expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and its budget has been increased from a modest US$6 million to between US$350 million and US$400 million per year. It has also been provided with more troops and sophisticated surveillance.

However, with the exception of Somalia and the Sahelian zone where armed Islamic groups operate, the Salafi jihadi ideology seems to have had little impact on Africa. Of course I would not contend that simply because Salafi jihadism has not yet taken root that there is no religious tension on the continent. For example, in Nigeria, the country with the largest Muslim population in Africa, riots and conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims have occurred almost every two years and have caused the death of thousands of people. In the same country, the introduction in 1999 of forms of Islamic criminal law to the legislation of Northern Muslim states of the Nigerian Federation generated protests and riots with significant death tolls. Nigeria has also experienced millenarian riots by Islamic groups that fought against the state and non-Muslim communities. These groups included the Yan Tatsine in 1980 and the so-called Taliban in Nigeria in 2003. However, these violent Islamic movements are largely homegrown, not offshoots of militant groups with ties to the Middle East.

In matters such as marriage, inheritance, and child custody, Muslim populations in Africa are still largely governed by principles of Islamic jurisprudence. However, with a few exceptions such as Somalia and Nigeria, secularism does not seem to face any serious threat in Africa, although the new Islamic revival is having a great impact upon segments of Muslim populations. Cohabitation between Muslims and non-Muslims remains for the most part peaceful. Salafi jihadism and Islamic extremism have spread in a few Muslim countries of the Middle East, but by and large, they have not been particularly successful in sub-Saharan countries.

A possible reason for this is that African political regimes tend to be less repressive than regimes in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Tunisia. Had some Middle Eastern countries allowed for greater competition and more democratic rules in national politics, Islamist groups could have formed effective political opposition parties and participated in a more stable game of political competition. But whatever the reason, the fact is that jihadism and extremism have made very limited inroads in sub-Saharan African countries overall. Indeed if Islamism does exist in the region, it exists only in the form of moderate revivalists attempting to implement social change.

OUSMANE KANE is associate professor of International Public Affairs at Columbia University.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A167969662