Islam in Africa is dead, long live Islam! Remembering Westgate attack, and why the Boko Harams should fear the internet

Africa's Muslim population is alive, and actually enjoys aspects of Western culture, though measured. Abubakar Shekau would be horrified.

THIS week is the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi. On September 21, 2013, gunmen belonging to the Somalia militant group Al Shabaab attacked the mall, and by the time the siege ended on September 24, there were 67 people – including four terrorists -  dead, and over 175 people injured.

On September 26, CNN will broadcast the HBO documentary on the attack, “Terror at the mall”. Many parts of the documentary make for very uncomfortable viewing, and some of the survivors – including a brave policeman who was one of the first rescuers and got wounded – raise the issue of Islam and terrorism. The policeman, himself a Muslim, makes the point that those who kill in the name of Islam, are working against the teachings of the Quran.

All this speaks to a serious contest by different visions of Islam. Though the extremist dominate the headlines, the reality on the ground is different:

Two weeks ago, Sudan quietly shuttered Iran’s cultural centres and expelled the cultural attache and other staff, while offering little explanation. 
Local media speculated that the expulsions were linked to Khartoum’s concerns that the officials were promoting Shia Islam—the majority faith in Iran. Sudan is largely Sunni, but due to a barrage of sanctions, has been forced to seek friends from across the sectarian divides.

Saudis snub Sudan’s Bashir

Balancing the resultant complexities has been hard work—last year Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was prevented from crossing Saudi Arabian airspace, as Riyadh insisted his aircraft did not have prior approval to do so.

But it was not lost on observers that Bashir was on his way to the swearing in of new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Iran and Saudi Arabia are majority Shia and Sunni respectively, and vie for influence in the Middle East, where the branch of Islam you are aligned with plays a major factor in international relations and personal fate. 

Islam has several branches, derived from the predominant Shia and Sunni schools. The two initially differed politically over the succession of Prophet Muhammad in 632, which then evolved to differences in theological and religious practice. In reality, though, the contrasts are not as wide as many would have you believe. These sub-branches include, for the Sunni, the Wahhabi or Salafi movements and the followers of the Shafi and Maliki schools among others; while Shias include Ismailis, Alevis and Alawites.

Other Muslim groups that do not fall under the two main schools also exist. Some like the Sufis combine aspects of both. In many ways, it is not any different from the divides one sees in Christianity.

Back in Africa, things are a little less complex, with the continent being largely Sunni. This is not surprising—globally Shia Muslims account for about 15% of the total Muslim population, while Sunnis count 85%. In fact most Shias live in only four countries—Iran, India, Pakistan and Iraq.

Almost one third of the world’s Muslims reside in Africa, with early accounts of Islam presence spanning back to the 7th century. The religion is predominant in the northern half of Africa—North Africa, the Horn and Sahel, and West Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have the most countries with Muslim majorities—many in the range of 95%. Sub-Saharan Africa has 15% of the Muslim population, while MENA has 20.1%.

In terms of absolute numbers as at 2010, the following five countries had the biggest Muslim populations in Africa, according to Pew Research data:

These numbers are not static: While the bases differ, Botswana (166.7%), Eritrea (156.6%) Congo Republic (130.8%), Benin (130%) and Namibia (125%) saw the highest gains in Muslim populations between 1990 and 2010, according to data from Pew Research Centre.

These seven African countries are projected to make the most percentage gain in their Muslim populations between 2010 and 2030:

Why do the numbers matter? Mainly because it is important to understand the intersection between Islam and public life, but also because Islam is so poorly understood by other religions. 

Poorly understood

For example research shows the vast majority of Muslims in many African countries favour making Sharia the official law of the land, but this would only be applicable to the Muslim population. 

Acceptable aspects of Islamic law also vary—its use in family and property disputes is not controversial for adherents, but severe punishment such as public floggings and mutilation of limbs is.

Also—myths about Islam often paint is as a violent religion, fuelled by the work of fundamentalist groups such as Al-Shabaab and attacks on places like Westgate and Boko Haram—but most surveys find that Muslims reject extremism, and see little Christian-Islam tension. Indeed the majority are more concerned with Muslim extremism than with Christians. 

Other little known facts include that most Muslims choose democracy, but want their religious leaders to have some influence. Interestingly, surveys  such as this eye-opening one found that many Muslims enjoy Western culture, especially those who use the internet, but also think it has a negative impact on morality. 

The researchers have some nuggets in there, such as that those Muslims who use the internet frequently are more likely to have a positive view of Christianity, both in Africa and globally:  

So the key trend to watch for the Muslim world and relations with other religions may actually be how fast the internet spreads. The irony here is that the internet has become the extremists’ main pulpit, so the very thing that makes them strong, is also that which is making them weaker.

In the end, then,as East Africa marks the first Westgate anniversary, little is black and white with Islam, and appreciating this fact instead of straitjacketing it may go a long way in helping religious harmony, and aiding Islamic moderates.


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