Origins of Islamic extremism 101 for Africa: World War II, migration, and resistance

Senegal's peaceful democracy is proof that Islam is not incompatible either with other religions or with democracy.

THIS article has been developed from a presentation given by Ousmane Kane at the “International Peace Conference: Contribution of Islam to the Attainment of Sustainable World Peace”, held in Dakar, Senegal by Medina Baye Peace Initiative, 28 – 29 July 2015.

Organised by the West Africa region’s Islamic brotherhood Medina Baye (the “Niassènes”), based in Kaolack, Senegal, the conference was attended by delegations from some 40 countries, as well as the Catholic church and organisations such as the Carter Foundation. 


There are now 40 million Muslims in the West, living as minorities.  They began arriving after World War II, when the West needed labour for post-war reconstruction.  They arrived as single men, and subsequently sent for their families.  Numbers grew to such an extent that the West began passing laws to restrict new arrivals in 1966, although the migration continued.

At the time, Western society was becoming increasingly secular, so Muslim communities held more closely to their religion to support them within the foreign cultures, and as a way of maintaining their identity far away from home.

They insisted on their fundamental right to freedom of religion, built mosques and continued to practice their religion without serious resistance, although there was debate as to whether they should go for full integration into Western society or adopt an uncompromising resistance to their traditional values retain their traditional culture.

At the end of the 80’s, with the fall of Communism, there was a resurgence of religiosity, including Islam, in former Soviet countries. The new Muslim leaders there urged their communities to be more rigorous in their practice of Islam. 

Some, with political leanings, encouraged an increasingly militant approach among their followers. This third phase brought militarisation of Muslim communities, starting in Afghanistan as resistance to the Soviet presence, and then spread elsewhere.

At the turn of this century West Africa was not part of this scenario, but now there is increasing militancy and extremism.  Media sensationalism is partly to blame for the disastrous negative perceptions of Islam that have led to the backlash of Islamophobia, which is equally dangerous. 

In Senegal, research in 2010 indicated that over 90% of respondents said religion played an important role in their life.  It is one of the most religious countries in Africa – and one of the most tolerant.  Senegal’s first president Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a Catholic Sérère, but had massive support from the Muslims. 

Senegal is the only country in the region that had never had a coup d’état or forced a former president into exile.  The country’s peaceful democracy is proof that Islam is not incompatible either with other religions or with democracy.

Actually, the word “jihad” does not mean “violence against others”. The Prophet Mohamed referred to his battle to re-gain control of Mecca as the “little jihad”. The “big jihad”, he said, is an inner struggle accomplished when the individual regained perfect peace between himself and the world about him, i.e. perfection.

In 20th century Africa, Islam was a vehicle for resistance against the colonialists, but mostly this resistance had been unarmed and peaceful.

But some states bear part of the responsibility for the current extremism in their territories. Boko Haram, for example, began in 2002 as a radical, but not yet violent, movement. Its initial goal was to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state by imposing Sharia law throughout the country, including on the largely Christian south.

That changed in 2009, when Boko Haram members decided they were going to refuse to obey a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets on the grounds that it was somehow un-Islamic. The arrest of several members sparked a riot in which Boko Haram had its first large clash with Nigerian police. The riots left a staggering 800 people dead.

It was only after the reaction of the Nigerian government of killing its leader Mohammed Yusuf in the aftermath of the riots in 2009 that Boko Haram began its current violent reign of terror.

Likewise one could argue it was the Western-led killing of Gaddafi that led to the current rapid spread of extremism and violence in North Africa.


Ousmane Kane, a scholar of Islamic studies and comparative and Islamic politics, joined Harvard Divinity School in July 2012 as the first Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at HDS. 

This piece was recommended and sent to Mail & Guardian Africa by Trudy Stevenson, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal. Twitter:@ambatrud

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