Paper for POMEPS on Electoral Islamism’s Weakness in the Sahel

The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) has a new collection out titled “Africa and the Middle East: Beyond the Divides.” From the introduction by Hisham Aïdi, Marc Lynch, and Zachariah Mampilly:

The goal of this volume is to get American political science to break down the barriers between academic subfields defined by regions and open the fields to new questions raised by scholars from and across Africa and the Middle East.

The impetus behind this is both intellectual and practical.  As our framing essay explains, the fields of Middle East Studies and African Studies emerged out of very different ideological and scholarly circumstances, and evolved in very different ways in the decades since.  Where African Studies grew out of the legacies of European colonialism and American racial politics, Middle Eastern Studies evolved from European Orientalism, the American Christian interest in the Holy Land, concern for Israel, and the intensity of Cold War strategic interests. Each area studies field passed through revolutionary moments, before moving into today’s professionalized, methods-driven and more disciplinary focused modes of political science. The divides between these fields are striking. Scholars within each field are far more likely to be conversant with and to draw upon research in that field than to reach out to the other for insights or comparative cases.  Little effort is usually made to justify regional boundaries which are in fact quite arbitrary.  Why, for instance, are the historical connections between the Horn of Africa with Yemen and Oman less significant than those with the African continent?  The artificiality of this division is especially clear with the definition of African Studies in terms of Sub-Saharan Africa, which has left North Africa, Sudan and the Horn in an uneasy position relative to contemporary area studies.

My contribution is called “Why Are There Few Islamist Parties South of the Sahara?” An excerpt:

First, there is the greater hegemony of clerical models of religious authority in the Sahel and Nigeria, in comparison with North Africa where clerics maintain substantial authority but where lay-led activist groups have also acquired a substantial share of the religious field. Second, there is a triple interaction between constitutionally-imposed secularism in most Sahel countries, the lack of Islamist mobilization in the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s, and the way that liberalization in the 1990s favored French-educated technocrats in the Sahel and military-civilian networks in Nigeria. Third, there are demographic contrasts between North Africa on the one hand and the Sahel on the other hand, particularly the latter region’s relatively lower rates of middle class formation, urbanization, and formal education, as well as higher rates of religious diversity in parts of the greater Sahel. Together, these factors have shrunk the political, social, and religious space available to would-be Islamist movements.

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