Dr Rahmane Idrissa

Where does Salafi radicalism in the Sahel come from?

There are no simple explanations, Dr Rahmane told a journalist meeting at the Leiden Africa Studies Centre. But he did give his audience some clues.

Where does Salafi radicalism in the Sahel come from? Where does it stand today? Where is it heading? So, as you can see, these really are overview interrogations, not deep research questions. But while it might be somewhat easy to respond to the two first ones, the last one is obviously a bit more complicated to grapple with. And also, prefacing those interrogations, there is a deceptively simpler question: what is Salafi radicalism? You’d notice that I do not speak of Islamic radicalism, because that is an inaccurate characterization. Islam is a universe of religion, culture and civilization that encompasses many, many things, many sorts of ideas, beliefs, value orientation, including this one, Salafism.

There is no Islamic radicalism as there is no Western radicalism

The radicalism that we are seeing now is of course related to Islam, since Salafism is an ideology within Islam, and more precisely, within Sunni Islam, but one cannot reduce Islam to Salafism. It is as if, due to the radicalism and terrorism of White supremacists, you’d routinely speak of Western radicalism. Such a language would be inaccurate. So, it is important to know what we are talking about. Salafism is a theology of Sunni Islam that basically, and of course I am simplifying quite a bit, connects salvation in the afterlife to the way in which we live in this world, and, and this is the important point, therefore stresses that all conditions for leading the correct Muslim life in this world should be created, because otherwise, Muslims run the terminal risk of an eternity in hellfire. To lead such a correct Muslim life – of course, correct as understood by the Salafi – a structure of governance, a Caliphate, an Islamic state, is necessary. Only such a structure would guarantee the implementation of the Sharia, of the Islamic rule of law, and it is necessary because if you follow another rule of law, then you risk violating Sharia, becoming a bad Muslim, and being consigned to hell after your death. This theological idea is therefore entwined with a political one. Salafism is necessarily, to use a phrase from the greatest Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, ‘theologico-political’. More specifically, it is both a theology and a political ideology, and that’s where the radicalism is coming from. If you think you can live only under a certain type of state, which does not exist around you, then you are existing order, seen as endowed with the inherent violence of illegitimacy, for the sake of the Salafi order, and Salafi extremism, which is the specific idea of unseating the existing order for the sake of the Salafi order using physical violence, the kind of violence that is widely described by the words terrorism and jihadism.

So where does Salafi radicalism come from, in the Sahel? There are three answers to this: historical, geopolitical, and socio-economic/political. The historical answer, I can summarize thusly. Islam has been very anciently present in the region that we now call the Sahel, but until the 19th -20th centuries, it was a minority faith. The governments in the Sahel were Sudanic, not Islamic, with some few exceptions from time to time. This changed with the Franco-British colonization of the region. Basically, colonization destroyed the Sudanic frame of life and opened the way for mass Islamization in the region – as it also opened the way for mass Christianization in the region further south, the Gulf of Guinea. At the same time, however, colonization was also importing in the region the concept of the modern secular state, in which religion is separated from politics. So, a contradiction was created in that way. On the one hand, mass Islam, and on the other, the modern secular state. This contradiction does not necessarily lead to conflict, and in fact until recently, there was very little conflict. But as any social or political contradiction, it could be exploited by people with an agenda when the circumstances are right.

And that’s where you get the two other causes, the geopolitical and socio-economic/political circumstances. In terms of geopolitics, there is first the Islamic cold war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran that started in 1979 and is continuing to date, and then there is the Algerian tragedy of the 1990s. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran underwent an Islamic revolution in 1979 although one hears only of the Iran revolution. The Saudi Islamic revolution, or Sahwa al-Islamiyya, i.e., ‘Islamic Awakening’, was a domestic Salafi political victory that followed the drama of the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by the Ikhwan in November-December 1979. When the Shi’a revolution of Iran occurred in December of the same year, Saudi Arabia had already turned into a Salafi state, and it soon went on to oppose the prestige that Iran was deriving from the fact that it had established the possibility of creating an Islamic republic in the modern world. To counter this, the Saudi and allies started to broadcast their brand of Salafism in the Sunni countries, including those in the Sahel.

Meanwhile, in Algeria, in the early 1990s, a Salafi political party, the Islamic Salvation Front, had won the nation’s first democratic elections in 1990. But it was then removed from power by the army, which led to a bitter civil war for the rest of the decade. This had an impact in the Sahel, because Algeria was close to the region, and the Salafi there were hoping that the success of their fellow ideologues in Algeria could have meant success for them too. The Algerian events led some of them to distrust the democratic process. But more importantly, the Algerian Salafi turned extremists and found a refuge in the southern Sahara, mostly in northern Mali, and this explains a lot about the problems of Mali today.

Finally, speaking of the socio-economic/political context, well, economic development stalled in the Sahel as in the rest of Africa in the 1980s. This weakened the state which had thus far been able to reward loyalty and ensure control, and alternative discourses of legitimacy became possible in the Sahelian societies, including that of liberal democracy, but also that of Salafism. In the early 1990s, most of the Sahelian countries started democratization processes in the hope that the economic engine could be re-started that way. But in so doing, they granted freedom of speech and association to everyone, including to the Salafi. And the latter took full advantage of that, especially since, in the name of secularism, all constitutions in the Sahel prevented them from forming religious political parties. So instead, they created associations and engaged in intensive preaching, lobbying, and educational efforts in madrasa, basically to persuade the population to adhere to Salafi ideas, and thus undermine the legitimacy of the secular state in countries that are massively Muslim. And this was a strategy that mirrored the one from the Saudi Islamic Awakening movement.

My second question is, where do we stand now? In a nutshell, the Salafi efforts at subverting the state via peaceful political means, such as lobbying, campaigning, preaching, etc., did not get them very far. They have been successful in becoming a mainstream theology of sort, but the prize of turning the secular state into an Islamic state has consistently eluded them, even in northern Nigeria where they have managed to integrate their vision of Sharia more fully into the operation of governance. This was frustrating of course and there was the possibility of some of the associations moving from non-violent radicalism to violent radicalism, i.e., extremism, and that’s what happened in northern Nigeria with the association that we now know as Boko Haram. In northern Mali, this happened too, but only because of a geopolitical disaster, the fall of Libya into chaos in 2011, the ensuing ethnic rebellion of the Tuareg in the northern part of Mali, and the response to that from the Salafi groups that were already entrenched there, including the Algerian exiles, but that had, until then, been mostly non-violent, apart from abducting Westerners in Mali and Niger. The violence of extremists has created a complicated situation. First, fire calls fire, so the conflict that they have started or joined have led to new conflicts that now go beyond their ideological objectives and involve old tensions that the Sahel’s states had been managing more or less well until now, as well as newer threats such as narco-trafficking. Second, however, their profile has lowered in the eye of the public across the Sahel, even to some extent in northern Nigeria. Salafism is now associated with violence, with the killing of ‘our soldiers’ and the terrorizing of ‘our populations’. And many people now associate this image with the non-violent Salafism that had become mainstream before. Especially in Niger, this has been a setback for mainstream Salafism. The situation in Mali is harder to read, because of the continuing crisis there.

Predictions of the future are often based on linear models of explanation.

So where is this all going? Well, social scientists are often asked to make predictions, and in fact, they often like to make predictions, they think that proves that they are scientists and that their science is useful. The problem is, they tend to make predictions based on linear models of explanation, as in, this causes this, then causes this, then causes this, in sequence. But social reality is rarely linear. Rather it is dialectic. Something rises, is opposed by something else, there is a struggle, and something new emerges out of that struggle. And this dialectical nature of social reality makes predictions really hard, because the thing that is new is new precisely because we do not know what it will look like. All that we can do in all honesty is to assess the forces that are engaged in the struggle and point up the direction that the struggle is taking, the kind of potential resolution that is emerging. And that’s where I will leave you hanging. But I can tell you what forces are right now on the ground. On the one hand we have forces in the religious field, such as the Salafi groups and their Muslim opponents, the Sufi, Ahmadiyya and even now Shi’a, and Christians as well; forces in the political field such as those within the state, organized Salafi ideologues and the Sufi establishment, especially in Mali and northern Nigeria; forces intervening from the outside, such as the French, US and other military operations; and local forces engaged in organized violence, both communal and jihadist.

The complexity of the interactions between these diverse forces depends on the country, and sometimes even on the region within the country. After research, it should be possible to give a simplified picture, but at this point I will not try it. All that I can say is (1) that the situation resembles very much that of a stalemate at this point, and (2) that I do not see a possibility for the jihadists, meaning the Salafi extremists, to win this. But they certainly have the capability of making their defeat long, painful, and destructive, especially since their adversaries are committing no shortage of mistakes in their approach of the struggle. So, I have to leave you on that rather indecisive note.

Abdourahmane (Rahmane) Idrissa (Niger) is a political scientist fast embracing history. His doctorate in political science, with a concentration on democratization and political Islam in Africa, was obtained at the University of Florida. Idrissa’s research expertise ranges from issues of states, institutions and democratization in Africa to Salafi radicalism in the Sahel and current projects on the history of state formation in Africa, with a focus both on the modern (Niger) and premodern eras (Songhay). Before joining the Africa Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, Idrissa has founded and run EPGA, a think tank in political economy in Niger, training students and coordinating projects based on methodologies of political economy analysis that focused on migration, youth employment and demography. In recent years, EPGA has worked in partnership with Clingendael on projects on migration, security issues and traditional governance in the Sahel borderlands. Idrissa is also associated with the Niamey based social science laboratory LASDEL and is on the editorial board of the African Studies Quarterly, at the University of Florida.

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