Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda

Published: 
May 10, 2005
By: 
David Dickson

Summary

  • An understanding of the multifaceted nature of political Islam on the African subcontinent is a precondition for the formulation of an effective U.S. policy toward the region. Such a formulation would place political Islam in a historical and contemporary context.
  • In East Africa, discrimination against Muslims—which began in colonial mission schools and continued in education and employment following independence—played an important role in the development of political Islam.
  • The impact of Saudi-sponsored Wahabism on the radicalization of Muslims in the Horn of Africa has been mixed. Its potential impact is most acute in Ethiopia, while the radicalization of Islam in Sudan has followed its own independent path.
  • Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria acquired a more pronounced political edge as the national fortunes of the governing Muslim national elite declined dramatically with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, a born-again Christian, to the presidency in 1999. This brand of political Islam was manifested in the adoption of Islamic law in one-third of Nigeria's states and sporadic communal violence between Muslims and Christians.
  • Senegal stands as an illustration of the reality that political Islam can be a constructive and regime-stabilizing force. Senegal has found a balance between a modernizing, secular state and the Muslim tradition. Democracy co-exists with a religiously encouraged grassroots social conservatism.
  • The United States should expand its diplomatic presence on the African sub continent, accompanied by the deployment of personnel conversant with local languages and Islam. Understanding local political and social dynamics is a precondition for sound U.S. policy.
  • It is important that the United States remain neutral on matters that impinge on the religious domain. A perceived tilt toward non-Muslims would do irreparable harm to future outreach efforts to a Muslim community already suspicious of U.S. motives. This basic guideline applies to East Africa and the Horn, as well as to potentially volatile Nigeria.
  • Educational and job initiatives targeted at disempowered sectors of the Muslim and non-Muslim populations should be supported. Economic opportunity can mitigate interreligious tensions.
  • Active support of democratic structures, human rights, and liberalization in the governmental sector and civil society is necessary. Governmental accountability and transparency can discourage extremist-sponsored popular mobilization fostered by political marginalization.
  • The establishment of a unitary U.S. military and intelligence structure for addressing military and terrorist-related issues on the subcontinent is needed. A coherent appraisal of sources of instability and necessary policy responses would follow.

About the Report

Accelerating with the attacks of September 11, 2001, but extending back more than a decade, studies of the growth of Islam as a source of political mobilization have proliferated, but few have examined political Islam on the African subcontinent or broadened the approach beyond transnational terrorism. On July 9, 2004, a conference of Africa experts from academia and the U.S. foreign policymaking community convened at the United States Institute of Peace to begin an examination of this shortcoming and its foreign-policy implications.

Ambassador George Ward, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Professional Training Program, and Taylor Seybolt, program officer in the Institute's Grant Program, chaired conference panels. Presenters included Howard University's Sulayman Nyang, the University of Connecticut's Lucy Creevey, and George Mason University's John Paden. Additional panelists included Malik Chaka, a staff member with the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, and Ambassador David Shinn, now at George Washington University and former ambassador to Ethiopia, and John Voll of Georgetown University. David Dickson, a specialist on Africa, organized the conference and wrote the report. Joseph Sany, an assistant in the Research and Studies Program, provided advice and assistance for the report. Paul Stares, director of Research and Studies, and Abdeslam Maghraoui, associate director for the Institute's Muslim World Initiative, supervised the drafting of the report.

The report provides a brief background on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa and its policy lessons for East Africa, the Horn, Nigeria, and Senegal. A future research agenda for policy analysts and overall recommendations for United States policy conclude the report.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

May 10, 2005