Mali’s Elections: SABATI 2012 and Muslim Engagement

For those interested in how Muslim identities figure in the lead-up to Mali’s July 28 presidential elections, the organization SABATI 2012 presents an important case. According to this article (French), SABATI, headed by a man named Moussa Boubacar Bah, is backed by two major Malian Muslim leaders: Imam Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and Chérif Bouillé of the Hamawiyya Sufi order.

SABATI is intervening in two important ways in the campaign: it has released a document outlining its policy recommendations to the new government, and it is preparing to endorse a candidate.

SABATI’s memorandum requests that the new government make policy changes in several sectors, among them “justice, the crisis of the north, security, health, religious, our ethical and moral values, education, agriculture, sanitation, and governance.” In the religious domain, SABATI calls for greater funding of religious institutions, the establishment of new centers for training religious professionals, the incorporation of Qur’anic schools into the state education system, and the creation of a national agency for Islamic schools. It is noteworthy both that SABATI makes relatively specific requests regarding government action on religion and that SABATI is deeply concerned with ostensibly non-religious sectors like agriculture (though, some might argue, everything is a religious matter).

Regarding SABATI’s endorsement, several articles (French) suggest that Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta (Wikipedia page here) is the preferred candidate of the organization and its purported backers. From what I can tell, however, the official endorsement has yet to appear.

For religious leaders, endorsing candidates carries rewards but also risks. Successfully mobilizing portions of the electorate (SABATI promises to mobilize more than 15% in Mali [French]) can oblige elected politicians to heed religious leaders’ demands, and can moreover bind followers and leaders more tightly together. On the other hand, giving an endorsement but failing to mobilize followers can make religious leaders appear impotent and ridiculous in the eyes of both politicians and their own followers. In Senegal, major Sufi leaders largely discontinued the practice of giving explicit endorsements after the late 1980s and early 1990s, when youthful disciples’ voting and rioting made clear that they were rejecting their shaykhs’ commands.

In Mali, some religious leaders, notably Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara (French), have stated that they will not give specific voting instructions to their followers; indeed, though SABATI has sometimes claimed to have Haidara’s support, press accounts suggest that Haidara’s followers have largely held themselves apart from the organization and its plans. We will see how SABATI and its backers manage the endorsement process, and how it affects their political and religious reputations.

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Akhdari: A Jurisprudential Text Used in Northern Nigeria

In Northern Nigeria, many Muslims seek religious instruction to learn about the tenets and practices of their faith. In the “traditional” curriculum (the word “tradition” can be problematic, for example if it implies that systems are static, but I use it as a placeholder sometimes), Muslim children and young adults begin by memorizing part or all of the Qur’an. They typically move next into a series of jurisprudential texts from the Maliki School, one of the four main legal schools in Sunni Islam. The Maliki School is widespread in North and West Africa and takes its name from Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), who lived in Medina and was one of the Successors of the Successors (i.e., the third generation of Muslims).

The Maliki texts that many Northern Nigerian Muslims read are summaries or manuals. They focus on issues like the details of how to perform ablutions before prayer. These texts, in the sequence they are typically read, progress in complexity and length. The first Maliki text in the “traditional” sequence is called Mukhtasar al Akhdari fi al ‘Ibadat ‘ala Madhhab al Imam Malik (Arabic: Akhdari’s Summary of Worship Practices According to the Legal School of Imam Malik). It was authored by Shaykh ‘Abd al Rahman al Akhdari (d. 1585). The text is known as Akhdari for short. The version here (Arabic, .pdf) is 19 pages, which may seem short – fitting for an introductory text, though I hope you will keep in mind that students would typically read this text together with a teacher, and that the text might spur conversations, meaning that the total time to study and master the text might be longer than its page length would lead one to expect.

Akhdari opens with an introductory section on faith and ethical behavior, before moving through the following sections: (a) purity; (b) ablutions with sand; (c) menstruation; (d) childbirth; (e) times of prayer; (f) conditions of prayer; and (g) negligence (i.e., during prayer). Akhdari focuses on prayer, in other words, as a core ritual duty of the individual.

I hope this short treatment of Akhdari has provided some background on what many Northern Nigerian Muslims read. In the media and even in academia, we hear a lot of ideological chatter about what such texts mean – “these texts represent rote memorization and the evils of the ‘madrasa’ system” or “these texts represent a living tradition that evil modernists have scorned.” My aim here is not to engage that ideological chatter, but simply to give you a snapshot into what these kinds of texts are about.

On Arabic in Northern Nigeria and Breaking the “Muslim=Arab” Equation

I’ve felt more aware recently of how some people see the Middle East as the “core” of the Muslim world, and other Muslim population centers as less relevant to Islam and even less “Islamic.” The equations “Arab=Muslim” and “Muslim=Arab,” which many people seem to accept, are hard to break. Certainly Mecca is the ritual center of the Muslim world, and Arabic the language of the Qur’an. But this does not mean that non-Arab Muslims are second-class believers, that they are less versed in Islamic sciences, or that they are less central to the trajectory of Islam in the contemporary world.

Arabic grammar is one of the classical Islamic sciences, and I think it is especially important to point out that many non-Arab Muslims can more than hold their own in this area. I think many students of Islam who have not traveled to sub-Saharan Africa might be surprised at the high standard of Arabic that some African Muslim scholars possess. During my field research in Northern Nigeria I routinely met people who spoke flawless Arabic (fusha, typically), even people who had never left Nigeria. This does not mean that advanced Arabic literacy is widespread among the population – although many people possess some ability to, at a minimum, sound out Arabic writing – but people with an advanced religious education, including advanced training in Arabic, are not rare.

One anecdote may help demonstrate the depth of such people’s command of Arabic. In Arabic textbooks in the United States, you will often find that what we call in English the “passive voice” is called in Arabic “al mabni lil majhul,” a classical grammatical term that translates, “the construction for the unknown [subject].” I was sitting with a friend one day when the term came up. He ventured that the “passive voice” would be better rendered “al mabni li ghayr al musamma bihi” – “the construction for the subject that is not named.” After all, he pointed out, just because the subject is not named does not mean that it is unknown. Maybe that won’t seem like a big deal to you, but it blew my mind. This man’s knowledge of Arabic was so deep, and he had spent so much time thinking about the grammar of the language, that he was able to point out an untenable assumption in a common grammatical term. I would put that man up against nearly any native speaker, or grammarian, and expect his knowledge of Arabic grammar to equal or surpass theirs.

How do such people get to that advanced level? Oftentimes, even for people who have university degrees (as he does), what we might call “traditional education” has given them a strong foundation. In the US, we frequently view memorization by rote as the lowest form of learning. We exalt “critical thinking,” as though one can think critically without a foundation comprised of details – details that must be memorized. We also tend to read widely, reading many texts, instead of deeply, reading one text closely or repeatedly. In Northern Nigeria, the memorization of texts is widespread, as is their close and repeated study. Grammarians in the region will often study in depth, and possibly memorize, texts like the Alfiya of Ibn Malik. That memorization can bring a powerful command of the language, especially in its classical form.

The memorization of the Qur’an itself can also offer a tremendous grounding in Arabic. A professor from Maiduguri (which is, or was, renowned as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an), told me once about an impromptu competition he had held in Syria between Syrian students and a few Nigerians who were there. The competition was to write out the fatiha – the opening sura of the Qur’an – from memory without making mistakes in voweling and other linguistic features. He said that the Nigerians were able to reproduce the Qur’anic text perfectly, while the Syrians stumbled. One may disbelieve the story, but it at least shows the confidence that he felt in Nigerians’ command of Arabic and of scripture.

There is much more to say on the subject of outsiders’ perceptions – and the realities – of the depth of religious commitment and religious knowledge among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. I plan to return to the subject. But I hope these quick anecdotes have shown that just because a Muslim is not an Arab does not necessarily mean that their Islam – or their command of Arabic – is second-rate.

Mauritanian Imams and Government Control

From Magharebia’s Jemal Oumar comes an interesting article on the Mauritanian government’s new program for training imams:

Mauritanian authorities kicked off a month-long training programme for imams at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Nouakchott last week as part of a push to encourage moderate beliefs.

[...]

More than a hundred imams are expected to take part in the programme. The Islamic affairs ministry said they “will receive presentations and training on topics in various areas relating to the interests of the people and management of their religious and daily life removed from extremism and delinquency”.

Mohamed Lemin Ould Emahoud, President of the National Union of Imams in Mauritania, praised the government support, saying that the training session was the “fruit of a programme of ambitious co-operation between the Union of Imams and the ministry to organise more training sessions for imams with an aim toward expanding their scholarly horizons in the performance of their noble mission”.

Participants in the seminar said it was important to educate imams so that they understand modern issues, including the threat of terrorism.

I am not surprised to see a program like this. Given its struggle with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Mauritanian government has a clear interest in trying to control the field of Islamic discourse in the country. Training imams – and therefore attempting to manage their pronouncements to some extent – is a logical place to intervene, given that other areas, like the internet, are less amenable to central control.

But I worry sometimes about the word “moderation,” because it seems to be used so often as a cudgel against Muslims, in a game whose rules are controlled by governments or outsiders, and which Muslims cannot win. For example, when American conservatives ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” over and over again, I get the sense that the question is not meant to be answered concretely, but rather to be used as a rhetorical weapon to define “good” and “bad” Muslims. So what does “moderation” mean in Mauritania? Presumably the government and almost all imams can agree on the goal of countering extremism, but if it is the government that defines “moderation,” that definition could quickly rule out non-violent forms of religio-political dissidence. On the whole it seems that these kind of efforts in Mauritania are a good complement to the use of force against AQIM, but the political consequences of this kind of government supervision could be larger than anticipated.

True, Mauritania has a decades-long tradition of government involvement in Islamic affairs, but that involvement has sometimes produced a backlash, or at least greater activism than the government has desired (for example, many of the country’s leading non-violent Islamists are products of government institutions of higher Islamic learning, yet the Ould Taya regime spent a lot of time jailing those Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s). So perhaps it is best to say that the government has a balancing act to perform here: looser government involvement in the training of imams could allow violent ideologies to proliferate, but overly tight government control in this area could generate resentments and backlash.

The Tenth Parallel

I began hearing about journalist Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel , which explores Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa and Asia, even before it came out. Yesterday I was reminded of it on Twitter by a posting from the Carnegie Council, which recently hosted an event with Griswold. I am planning to check out the book – have others read it yet?

The New York Times praises it:

“The Tenth Parallel” is a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue — whether fundamentalism leads to violence — which Griswold investigates through individual lives rather than caricatures or abstractions.

[...]

Griswold’s journey is made all the more interesting because of her personal motivations. The daughter of a leading liberal Episcopal bishop, she recalls being spooked by the consecration ceremony in which he lay facedown on the floor of the cathedral in Chicago with his legs and arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. As a young girl she saw the Bible “as a book of spells, one whose extravagant metaphors, whose terrible and powerful parables were ways to call God down to earth.” And as a teenager she feared that God would ask her to be a nun. “I spent those years wondering how it was that smart people could believe in God,” she writes.

In 2003 Griswold traveled to Sudan with Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who attempted to convert her by inviting her to pray with him. She could not find a logical reason to decline, since, as a good ecumenical Episcopalian, she had prayed with Sunnis and Sufi Muslims. She returned to Sudan five years later, after its leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. The war-torn country’s Christian south is preparing for a 2011 vote on whether to split from the Muslim north, which would break Africa’s largest country in half. Griswold also reports from Somalia at great personal risk, vividly describing in 30 pages the religious violence and ill-informed policies that America has pursued since its failed attempts to corral the murderous Aidid clan (members of which she meets with). More recently, Washington has been trying to weaken the Qaeda-linked Shabab gang and shore up a hapless Islamist government.

Sounds pretty fascinating. If I get a chance to read it I’ll post more, and if you read it please tell me what you think.

Kenya’s Constitutional Controversy Turns Violent

Just returned from my trip, so I’m easing back into blogging today.

Provisions regarding shari’a courts in Kenya’s proposed new constitution have created legal controversy for weeks, but now they are also causing violence:

At least five people have died and dozens been injured in a stampede at a rally in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The stampede followed two explosions, the cause of which is unknown.

The rally was organised by Christian groups opposed to a draft constitution because it retains recognition of existing Islamic courts and includes a clause on abortion.

Kenyans are due to vote on the new constitution in a referendum in August.

This is a real tragedy, and also a real reason to worry: people feel strongly about the issue, and August is still a ways off.

Kenya Islamic Courts Update

The controversy over the inclusion of Islamic courts in Kenya‘s proposed constitution continues to fascinate me. It brings into play so many issues about Christian-Muslim relations, constitutionalism, and Islamic law in Africa. One hell of a dissertation topic too, for anyone looking to do research on Kenya.

Matt Brown has an analysis of the controversy in The National and Eunice Machuhi and Jillo Kadida of The Daily Nation write, if I understand them correctly, that an earlier court ruling against shari’a courts will have no effect on the relevant provisions in the constitution:

On Monday, Law Society of Kenya chairman Kenneth Akide said the High Court ruling in Mombasa had clearly shown that the Judiciary has no powers to declare any section of the Constitution to be unconstitutional.

“The High Court ruling has recognised the fact that courts cannot interfere in constitution-making and emphasised the fact that this process is the preserve of Parliament,” he said.

“The Ruling puts the review process back on track and lays down the correct jurisprudence of constitution-making process in the country,” he said.

Mr Akide said the ruling had made it clear that the process of constitution-making was a preserve of the people and not courts.

NTV Kenya reports on poll results showing that 63% of Kenyans say they will vote for the constitution in the coming referendum, with voters fairly evenly divided around the shari’a courts issue. That suggests the shari’a courts will stay in the constitution. That means an end to the current round of controversy, perhaps, but maybe not an end to the issue in the long run.

Quick Thoughts: Kenya’s Islamic Courts, Arab Approval of US Leadership, Brain Gain

A few quick items:

  • The Christian Science Monitor looks at Kenya’s Islamic Courts controversy. Also at stake as Kenya moves toward approving a new constitution are issues related to abortion and land reform. Background here.
  • Gallup reports that Arab approval of US leadership is slipping. Especially sharp drops occurred in Egypt and Algeria.
  • The BBC reports on Africa’s “Brain Gain”: “Any number of Africans seek to cross the ocean and make their fortunes, never to be seen again. But when our team travelled around Africa recently to film a new TV documentary series, we found a different story. Many of the Africans I met had worked or been educated in the West and come back. Across nine African countries and a journey of 7,000 miles from Mali to South Africa, from Ghana to Ethiopia, the story was often the same. Africans were returning from working or studying abroad either for patriotic reasons or because of the growing opportunities back home.”

Feel free to treat this as an open thread for Africa news.

More on Kenya’s Islamic Courts

Yesterday I flagged this story about how Kenya’s Islamic courts are facing a legal challenge. Now there’s more: Kenya’s attorney general is contesting the lower court decision that ruled the courts illegal.

The country’s Attorney General Amos Wako said the judgement itself was unconstitutional and sets a bad precedent.

The Kenyan government – including Mr Wako – supports a draft of the constitution which includes Kadhi courts.

A group of lawyers from the International Commission of Jurists – Kenya, the Law Society of Kenya, and the Federation of Women Lawyers also weighed in, accusing the judges in the case of harboring their own political motives regarding the upcoming constitutional referendum:

“The timing is not a coincidence as the Judiciary is once more joining forces that do not want a new Constitution, which will require them to undergo vetting. If there was any doubt as to the necessity for vetting the Judiciary this has been removed by the actions of the court,” said LSK’s Lucy Kambuni.

LSK, ICJ and Fida also added that the matter pointed to infringement on the rights of one particular section of society.

“Equality of persons does not mean a commonality in values and practice. What the judges have clearly implied are that the rights of non Muslims are superior to those of the Muslim faithful and in essence proceeded to discriminate against the Muslims to have their disputes resolved according to their personal law,” Fida’s deputy executive director Claris Ogangah said.

The lawyers said that the judges were making a deliberate attempt to stall the process that would see the judicial reforms that the country has been seeking fail.

NTV Kenya has more from the attorney general: