Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed. W. F. S. Miles ed. London: Lynne Rienner, 2007. 221 pp.
Given the spotlight on the roles of religion in public life thanks to the panic and anxiety that have accompanied the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States of America, no other times could have been more appropriate for the publication of this collection of critical essays by the experts. In setting the scene for the book, Miles is quick in arming the reader against what appears to be the mammoth disguise of the September 11 terrorist attack that turns to blur the intellectual pursuit of explaining the intensification of political Islam in West Africa. Skillfully, Miles provides the theoretical springboard that is underpinned by such dominant perspectives as the Westernization discourse, the centre-periphery dichotomy, the Occident/Gulf divide, the modernization paradigm, the much-trumpeted Islamic threat and the globalization theory. The authors of this collection were tasked to address three main themes namely, the local perceptions and ramifications of Al-Qaida’s attack on the United States of America (USA) and the USA-led invasion and occupation of Iraq; the rise of Islamism and the ongoing trends regarding Islamist politics in West Africa; and the politicization of Islam in West Africa and the resulting implications for the dynamics between governments and societies.
As regards the local perceptions and ramifications of Al-Qaida’s attack on the USA and the USA-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the contributors provide a variety of answers. Vine traces the root of the growth of “Wahhabism” (p. 91) in Mali to the activities of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat). Loimeier explores how an Islam-based local resistance against some state institutions in Nigeria benefited from the globalizing effects of the high-profile notoriety of the Taliban regime. Charlick, Jourde and Darboe demonstrate to the reader a common pattern in the reactions of Muslims in Niger, Mauritania and The Gambia, respectively. Muslims in these countries saw the attack on the USA as a befitting punishment for the enemies of Islam. The Muslims in these countries, therefore, identified with the Muslims under the USA-led invasion.
Contrary to this foregoing pattern, Villalón explains how Senegalese Muslims refused to be drawn to the religious enthusiasm that the 11 September attack ignited amongst Muslims when their public opinion questioned the Islamic credentials of the perpetrators of the 11 September attack. Charlick and Jourde lead the reader to understand how Muslims in Niger and Mauritania mobilised grassroots support to show their dissatisfaction. The grassroots mobilization offered the governments of these countries the opportunity to suppress the Islamists in the form of arrests and detentions. In the case of the government in The Gambia the pattern was different. Darboe brilliantly establishes how the overt Islamic identity of the Jammeh administration carved a peculiar state-society relation on the issue of terrorism. The Jammeh government provided a forum for the Islamists to praise the attack when the regime was in a dire need of political legitimacy. As soon as the government encountered economic problems in the face of a soured relationship with the Arab world, it abandoned the Islamists and joined the fight against global terrorism.
Of the three broad themes of this collection, the best treated is the growth of Islamism. The contributors principally attribute the growth of Islamism in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, The Gambia and Senegal to the internal dynamics in the struggle for religious supremacy between the traditional Sufi brotherhoods such as the Qadiriyya, Sanusiyya and the Tijaniyya among others on one side and the reformist groups such as the Salafist groups and Jama’at Izalat al-Bid‘a wa-Iqamat as-Sunna (the Movement Against Negative Innovations and for Orthodoxy) on the other. The contributors establish a connection between the different socio-political landscapes and the intellectual and theological dimensions that guided the struggle dialectically. They note how this internal struggle between the Islamic groups played out in the religio-cultural struggle in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the Mauritanian case offers an exception to this pattern of internal struggle among Islamic sects. With the strong Islamic character of the Mauritanian state, Jourde roots the dynamics of the growth of Islamism in the state/society relations on one side and the inter-ethnic or racial relations on the other. Concerned with the need to protect their regime, the ruling elites defined what true Islam is and arrogated the task of protecting it to themselves. Jourde explains how ethnic and racial consciousness engendered by the antagonistic relationship between the Moorish and Futanke groups has led to checkmating any religious development that would enhance the cultural standing of the other.
In connection with the interplay between politics and religion, the contributors provide fascinating accounts of various scenarios in their counties of expertise. Without a doubt, the contributors show that the border between politics and religion is porous, allowing the interpenetration of religion and politics. First, Charlick explores how the Nigerien Muslims’ insistence on the traditional interpretation of women’s role in society began to question the corporatist character of the state. Second, he establishes the impact of Muslims’ grassroots mobilization on governance. He demonstrates how this mobilization which was informed by a deep-rooted suspicion over the sincerity of the West in funding and championing “immunization against polio” (p. 31) and “protection against the spread of HIV/AIDS.” (p. 32) was blurring the true theological stance of Islam on issues such as the economic roles of women, birth control and discrimination against women. In Loimeier’s paper, the reader sees how the extension of Shari’ah to the penal codes in northern Nigeria represents the most formidable onslaught on the character of the secular governance. Despite professing secularism as the core of the Malian state, Vine painstakingly explains how the various regimes had depended on the religious leaders to boost their political legitimacy. Jourde’s exposition on Mauritania is characterized by a notorious intrusion of politics in religion with the state’s promulgation and implementation of “Mosque Law…which defined mosques as public spaces subject to the control of the state.” (p. 115). In the case of The Gambia, Darboe leads the reader to understand how politicians and religious elites forayed into the religious and political spheres, respectively in order to exploit resources therein for their respective enterprises.
The principal weakness of this edited book is that it does not cover all the 16 countries of West Africa. The question of representation is even more pertinent when the reader is confronted with the status of Islam vis-à-vis politics in countries that have strong Christian character at the political level such as Ghana, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast among others. Nonetheless, the greatest achievement of this collection is to question the need for a call for an internal debate within Islam. The call sees the necessity of an internal debate within Islam that can generate innovative ways that can be adopted by Muslims societies in order that they can comfortably go with the imperatives of the secular and human rights regimes of the contemporary world. With rich data, the collection demonstrates that the internal debate has been going on in Muslim communities ever since they first encountered colonialism. If the debate is slow in generating the appropriate response for a smooth cohabitation with the secular order, then that is another matter.
. An-Na’im, Abudulai Ahmad. “Human Rights in the Muslim World: Socio-Political Conditions and Scriptural Imperatives – A Preliminary Inquiry” Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 3, (1990):13-52.
M. H. A. Bolaji, SPIRE Keele University, UK