Academic journal article African Studies Review


Academic journal article African Studies Review


Article excerpt

West African Islam is evolving politically and fast: This much these four rich case studies on Niger, Gambia, Nigeria, and Senegal assure us. How quaint now seems the early postcolonial notion that meaningful separation of mosque and state would remain a bedrock of the independent nation-state in a region of Africa marked by such a strong Muslim presence. Significant inroads into the superimposed European ideal of governance through secular institutions alone had already been made before the events of 9/11 recalibrated our focus on Islam in West Africa. As Mahmud and Villalon show us, partisan democratizing pressures in Nigeria and Senegal had put Shari'a and anti-Mouride Reformism on the the political table well before Osmana bin Laden became a household name. Similarly, the emergence of civil society associations in Niger and Wahhabi proselytizing in Gambia, according to Charlick and Darboe, elevated Islamist movements there prior to the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. After 9/11, the significance of Islamism in West Africa is of course inescapable: Mahmud's mere reference to a "Nigerian Taliban" inevitably whets curiosity. This response, however, is disproportionate to the group's real impact. It is crucial, in other words, that scholars of West African Islam not fall into the reductio ad al-Qaedum trap of neophyte Africanist students and intelligence analysts.

For Islamism is not a specter haunting West Africa. Despite the politicization of Islam in the four countries under consideration (representative, in terms of religion, of West Africa writ large), the likelihood of a theocratic state arising in any one of them is nil. Nor are national integrity and identity endangered by Islamist movements that have arisen: State-mosque relations have distinct outcomes in the different states, and no pan-Islamic revolution is going to dissolve West African states into ajihadist confederation.

Nevertheless, in all of the cases under consideration there is a remarkable blurring of postcolonial lines separating mosque and state. Even if the specific forms thus taken differ from country to country (see table), the general encroachment of Islamic preoccupations into the public sphere needs to be taken into account. Five areas are worth singling out: the rise of "reformist" organizations; domestic splits between Islamic groups; anti-Westernization; women's issues as Islamist flashpoints; and external influences.

Reformist Renaissance

"Africanized Islam is defective": From Banjul to Maradi, this tendentious belief has been used to mobilize and invigorate new Islamist groups throughout the region. The famously syncretistic, tolerant, and assimilationist varieties of Islam (best described here by Darboe and Villalón) are on the defensive. Reformist (or "Orthodox") interpretations of Islam, whose legitimacy is derived outside of Africa, aim to supersede traditionalist ways of praying, believing, and networking.

These "reformist" groups enjoy varying degrees of connection with one another. Charlick and Mahmud focus on Izala, a Northern Nigerian movement that, especially on account of mercantilist connections, has carried over into Niger. Differing national contexts have inflected the scope and importance of Izala in these two nations, however. A dismissive Francophone elite in a much more homogeneously Muslim society (Niger) contains Izala in a manner without equivalent in Nigeria. Nigeria's polarization between (southern) Christian and (mostly northern) Muslim camps imparts to Izala an ethnically symbolic importance that it lacks in Niger. At the same time, Northern Nigeria is host to an array of competing Islamist groups (Mahmud highlights the Muslim Brotherhood) against which Izala in Niger need not contend in like measure. For sure, as Charlick informs us, there has been in Niger a significant proliferation of Islamic civil society associations. Yet they are not "Islamist" in even the largely inclusive way that we have been using the term. …

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