“Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

Youssou Ndour, the Senegalese musician who now serves as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, made headlines in the Senegalese press this weekend for saying (French), “I sincerely think that these people who are destroying the tombs of saints and historic sites [in northern Mali] are not Muslims.”

Statements like Ndour’s, denying membership in the Muslim community to Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims, are not rare. Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, Northern Nigeria, has made similar remarks about the rebel sect Boko Haram:

We cannot call these people Muslims. They are transgressors, who commit heinous crimes, which are totally condemnable. Islam is and will remain a religion of peace and even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SWA) lived peacefully with followers of other faiths. Therefore, no one can justify attacking places of worship belonging to other faiths as Islamic.

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely. One must be careful with terminology, of course: I do not consider Ndour and Gaidam’s statements equivalent to formal declarations of takfir (excommunication). But when analysts use “takfiri” as a synonym for “jihadi” or “terrorist,” they risk implying that such groups are the only ones willing to be exclusivist, and they risk sacrificing historical and contextual depth. Over time, Muslims of many different theological and ideological stripes have been willing to deny the Islam of their rivals – even the Sufis who are so often assumed to be only targets of excommunication, never its proponents.

What is your reaction to Ndour’s statement? What effects do you think it might have on audiences in Senegal and Mali?