Don't Panic

By Gavin, Michelle | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Don't Panic


Gavin, Michelle, Harvard International Review


Dr. Ousmane Kane ("Moderate Revivalists: Islamic Inroads in Sub-Saharan Africa," Summer 2007) offers a welcome respite from the hyperventilating analyses of Islam and the terrorist threat in sub-Saharan Africa that have become all too common in the wake of 9/11. While I may quibble with some elements of his article--he significantly overstates the level of US government funding for the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, largely ignores the powerful strain of extremism running through Sudan's history with Islamism, and seems to suggest that the same Salafist jihadist group that operates in the Sahel is also active in Somalia despite the different origins and nature of the terrorist networks in the Horn--his overall cautionary message is on the mark. It is a mistake to conflate the presence of Islamism in Africa with the presence of transnational terrorist networks in Africa. Both exist in the region, but they are certainly not one and the same.

Kane argues that Islamism in Africa is typically concerned with social reform efforts rather than explicit political activism or violent jihadism. In particular, Islamic revivalists in the region condemn corruption and decadence, and call for purification as a remedy to social ills. This is worth a closer look, because while Kane suggests that this message is aimed at the Muslim community rather than the state at large, it is easy to see how this brand of Islamism can take on political, populist resonance for societies that watch their rulers amass tremendous personal wealth as a direct result of their public office, while the man on the street cannot obtain the most basic services without encountering requests for bribes. Given the potency of corruption-related issues in many African states, including religiously heterogeneous countries like Nigeria and Kenya, the stage is set for Islamism to play an interesting political role, despite Kane's claim that African Islamists are not interested in capturing political power.

This dynamic has important implications for policy. Obviously committed terrorists will never be satisfied with cleaner government. But the passive support that they sometimes derive from populations frustrated with their current leaders may be diminished when non-violent movements working to combat corruption gain traction.

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