Like Clockwork, Journalists Cast Suspicion on Salafis Following a Jihadist Attack

Cote d’Ivoire has suffered two notable jihadist attacks in recent years: the assault on the Étoile du Sud Hotel in Grand Bassam in March 2016, and an attack on a border post at Kafolo in June of this year. Assessing the threat that jihadists pose to Cote d’Ivoire is very difficult, and there are many, many unknowns about the extent of jihadist activity and recruitment in the country.

Le Monde, however, has already decided that Salafism in Cote d’Ivoire is a big problem. A new article is headlined, “In Cote d’Ivoire, the Islam ‘of the Middle Ground’ Is Weakened By the Breakthrough of Salafism” and subtitled “After the terrorist attack at Kafolo on 11 June, authorities fear the installation of a jihadist cell in the country, even though it’s known for its religious cohesion.”

The article contains everything that so many other articles, written about so many other countries, have contained: The government-backed Islamic council are the good guys, the moderates; then Saudi money poured in and ruined everything. The Salafis are calling other Muslims kuffar, and the stage is set for violence. The narrative writes itself.

There are many problems with that narrative, though. For one thing, Salafism or Wahhabism or whatever one wants to call it has been present in Cote d’Ivoire for decades. Robert Launay’s Beyond the Stream, based on his extensive fieldwork in northern Cote d’Ivoire beginning in the 1970s, shows that neither Salafism, nor debates over what it means to be an Ivoirian Muslim, are new whatsoever. Other works covering countries across West Africa, for example Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Ghana (see Ousman Kobo’s Unveiling Modernity), also date organized Salafism and the bitter debates it provoked back to the 1960s or even earlier. The article in Le Monde gives the misleading impression that Salafism, Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs, and accusations of unbelief are of very recent vintage in Cote d’Ivoire, roughly coinciding with the presidency of Alassane Ouattara (took office 2010). One Ivoirian academic quoted in the article puts the change in the religious scene even more recently, in just the last five years. Yet by implying that Ivoirian Salafism came only recently, the journalists can duck a crucial question: If this interpretation of Islam predisposes people to jihadist violence, why has there not been more jihadist violence in the country? As Jacob Olidort has written, “If most Salafists globally were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different.” 

A second problem with the narrative in Le Monde‘s article and elsewhere is that it never really specifies the mechanism that is supposed to lead from the spread of Salafism to the spread of jihadism. I think the assumptions are so hard-wired into the Western liberal consciousness that they’re almost never, now, unpacked. It’s assumed that Saudi Arabia wants to spread not just its favored theology around the world, but in particular violent, disruptive interpretations of Islam  – is that true? Would that be in Saudi Arabia’s national interest? Why then have Saudi Arabian universities and clerical bodies placed so much emphasis on the (alleged) theological imperative of obeying rulers?

And it’s assumed, in Le Monde‘s article and elsewhere, that when Salafis give sermons in which “the woman who works and who dresses without a veil is attacked, beer drinkers are badly perceived” that this is somehow the penultimate step before violence breaks out – is that true? Since 9/11 if not before, so many journalists and commentators have been confident that jihadists commit attacks not out of direct political motivations and goals but out of holding illiberal beliefs, particularly about women; Bin Laden wasn’t really mad about American soldiers in Saudi Arabia and all the other specific and explicitly political issues he repeatedly mentioned, the logic runs; he must have actually been mad about women wearing bikinis and reading books. So whenever you find a Muslim scholar or preacher or activist who doesn’t like unveiled women or people going to bars, the logic continues, that person must be kind of a crypto-jihadist, delivering inflammatory sermons on social issues until the time is ripe to launch a violent project.

At the same time, journalists and commentators spin out a kind of fantasy about the Salafis’ supposed opposite, the “moderate” Muslim, onto whom Western liberals project an equal number of assumptions. But let’s try an experiment: let’s go into a random, non-Salafi mosque in Cote d’Ivoire and ask the imam to perform a marriage ceremony for two men or two women at the nearest bar. What do you think the reaction will be? Or find me the chapter in the Risala or the Mukhtasar* where it says that women should go unveiled and that drinking beer is fine. Ask these kinds of questions, and suddenly the definition of “moderate” begins to get slippery – are “moderate” clerics those who support the incumbent government? Swear off violence completely? Studiously avoid sensitive, sexuality-related topics when attending the workshop convened by USAID? Meanwhile there are many clerics, Salafis and non-Salafis, who are deeply socially conservative but who are not only disinterested in violence, but disinterested in contestatory politics of any kind. Yet only of certain Muslims is the demand made: “Tell your daughter to uncover her hair or I’ll say you’re a terrorist.”

Do we find Salafi-jihadi organizations and figures with links to wider Salafi movements? Absolutely. But the relationships and the ideological transformations have to do not with the content of beliefs in isolation, not with violence flowing spontaneously out of certain theological outlooks, but with specific processes and triggers. Muhammad Yusuf, the founder of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, was not an inevitable outgrowth of the wider and mostly non-violent Salafi movement in Nigeria. Rather, he was a religio-political entrepreneur who broke with the wider Salafi movement on key points and whose evolution was shaped by numerous context-specific events both inside and outside the Salafi milieu. Iyad ag Ghali, now the most prominent Sahelian jihadist, founded a Salafi-jihadist organization in late 2011/early 2012 after years of exposure to Salafi theology as well as jihadist networks and thought – but he had also been negotiating to lead a decidedly non-Salafi, separatist rebel movement just weeks before creating his jihadist outfit. In fact, with a few exceptions, in West Africa it has been relatively rare for a major Salafi preacher to create a jihadist outfit – often the leaders of jihadist organizations are fighting men, for lack of a better descriptor, and when we see preachers leading movements it is figures (like Yusuf or Amadou Kouffa) who are second-tier preachers at best, junior to more established Salafi clerics. The big-deal preachers have too much on the line to go into jihadism – and none of the big-deal preachers in the region have seemed very interested in jihadist projects in the first place, however illiberal they may be in their social views or however critical they may be of politicians in their countries.

As with so much journalism, moreover, the sensationalist headline of Le Monde‘s article is belied by much of the content. A long section discusses how historically, there has been less inter-religious conflict in the country than one might have expected. The article closes with an Ivoirian researcher saying, “To my knowledge, there exists no formal, radicalized entity in the country.” So what is the point, then, of suggesting that Cote d’Ivoire has some kind of massive problem with radicalized Salafis?

In fact, there are risks that this type of journalism and this type of thinking will do real world harm: (1) a lot of people uninvolved in violence could become targets of suspicion and even of the type of harassment that can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, (2) “CVE” practitioners could waste a ton of money and time and stir up various forms of resentment by trying to turn people into liberals when, again, those people aren’t involved in violence, and (3) government efforts to control interpretations of Islam and to curtail the activities of specific theological constituencies could escape the kinds of critical questions that should be asked; as so often, Western liberals are eager to see religious controls imposed in Muslim countries that they would find unacceptable in their own societies.

*Two core texts in the Maliki school of (Sunni) Islamic law, the school long dominant in North and West Africa.

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