On Salafism and Terrorism in Mali: A Response to the Monkey Cage

On November 20, a team of gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, taking hostages and killing twenty people. The tragedy reflects the complex aftermath of Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war, which was centered in the northern part of the country, but which has left in its wake a nationwide terrorism problem.

There has been much helpful commentary on the attack, and there has been some unhelpful commentary. In the latter category is a piece published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, entitled “After this month’s attack in Bamako, what do we know about fundamentalist Islam in Mali?” The author, a University of Florida political scientist named Sebastian Elischer, unfairly links some non-violent Malian Muslim political activists to terrorism. By “fundamentalism,” Elischer means Salafism, a literalist form of Sunni Islam.

Elischer’s argument is politically dangerous. He writes in the context of a wider environment in which many observers assume that Salafism, a theological position, predisposes its adherents to jihadism, a form of violent politics. This assumption is wrong: as Jacob Olidort has pointed out, if the hundreds of thousands of non-violent Salafis around the world “were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different” (p. 4, footnote 1).

The fact that the majority of Salafis reject jihadism has been largely ignored amid the media’s and the terror-ology industry’s constant equations of Muslim activism with violence. This environment makes it easy for various governments to justify crackdowns against a wide swath of activists, regardless of whether or not they are involved in violent jihad. This environment also distorts Western policymakers’ understandings of the roots of jihadism and terrorism. The current and naïve framework of “countering violent extremism” has yielded many failures, and these failures stem in part from the assumption that the “wrong beliefs” are the main factor in people’s embrace of violence.

Elischer, of course, denies that he is engaging in guilt by association. But listen to the language he uses:

The political Salafists in Bamako are not behind the recent attacks on the Radisson. But they provide an ideology that opposes democracy and secularism — two major achievements of Mali’s political trajectory in the past two decades. Nonetheless, the international community should note that the forces seeking to destabilize Mali are not just isolated in far-flung northern regions but are actually not that far from the presidential palace.

Let us pause briefly here to ask how one ought to explain the Radisson Blu attack. First, one should start by elaborating the histories and agendas of the groups that have claimed responsibility and have previously been involved in violence. One should then contextualize these groups’ violence within the broader history of politics and conflict in Mali during the colonial and post-colonial periods, with particular emphasis on the period 2011-present. One should also make appropriate reference to how the aftermath of Algeria’s “Black Decade” of the 1990s has affected Mali, especially in terms of the spillover of Algerian-led jihadist groups into northern Mali and their long-term efforts to implant themselves in local communities there. In his effort to link southern Salafis to terrorism, Elischer skims over or neglects the relevant history.

The villain in Elischer’s piece is Mahmoud Dicko, a southern Salafi cleric who serves as president of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Dicko is a major Malian public figure who is, by all accounts, uninvolved in jihadist activity – and who has publicly condemned the Radisson attack. In Elischer’s eyes, however, Dicko’s political activities are anti-democratic and “destabilizing.”

Dicko is not going to be any Western policymaker, academic, or human rights activist’s ideal of a “moderate Muslim.” Dicko linked the Radisson attack, for example, to what he calls the Western world’s “promotion of homosexuality.” Dicko envisions and works toward a Mali that is religiously and socially conservative.

But are Dicko’s actions anti-democratic? Elischer writes that Dicko and his camp seek “to impose fundamentalist Islamic beliefs on society by asserting a role in the political sphere.” Doesn’t everyone who participates in politics seek to impose some kind of belief system on their society? In a U.S. context, I want everyone to have free medical care, housing, and a minimum income – and if I can help get politicians elected who support those views, then I am willing to have that system “imposed” on voters who disagree with it. That’s how politics works: even in a democracy, some people don’t get their way.

The issue raised by people like Dicko is what happens when democratic contexts coincide with mobilization in the name of illiberal values. What happens, in other words, when a group of Malian Muslims mobilizes to protest a family code that would give greater rights to women, as happened in 2009? Dicko helped lead a campaign that pressured former President Amadou Toumani Toure to back down and amend the proposed code in a more conservative direction, in line with the wishes of Dicko and others. Such changes, however, were accomplished without significant violence. Arguably, that’s just democracy in action – but for Elischer, all of Dicko’s political actions constitute an inappropriate fusion of religion and politics, a form of “intimidation” against the government, and/or a nefarious “influence” over elected officials and civil servants.

Worth adding, too, is that Dicko is not the only proponent of social conservatism in Mali. Does anyone think that Sufi shaykhs in Mali, or post-Sufi media stars like Shaykh Cherif Haidara, are going to be lining up to advocate for the rights of homosexuals in Mali? Dicko and the Salafis, after all, were far from the only voices arguing against the more liberal family code. And if we’re talking about threats to democracy in Mali, then surely the politicians who steal public money, the junior army officers who staged a coup in 2012, to say nothing of the northern jihadists and separatists, deserve some mention. With secularism, finally, one might ask whether Mali must remain beholden to the version of secularism it inherited from France, or whether the country’s vast Muslim majority has some right to reimagine the relationship of religion and politics in their country.

Elischer’s own orientation, ironically, is nakedly anti-liberal. In his recent article for African Affairs, he suggests that the state of Islamic affairs was better in Sahelian countries like Niger during the 1970s and 1980s, when an alliance of military rulers and Sufi shaykhs could more tightly regulate the religious sphere. Elischer implies that the free of exchange of ideas – allowing Salafis to compete for political and social influence – is inherently dangerous and “destabilizing.” Some societies, we hear, need top-down control and a class of state-appointed “good Muslims” to keep the “bad Muslims” in check.

The ultimate problem with Elischer’s analysis of Salafism is this implicit “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy. His approach to Salafism is too simple. In his Monkey Cage piece and elsewhere, he relies on an outdated typology of Salafis from 2006, which classifies Salafis into “purists/quietists” (allegedly apolitical preachers oriented toward moral reform), “politicos” (politically engaged preachers), and “jihadis.” As I told Elischer in person at the fall 2015 meeting of the American Political Science Association, recent work has challenged this typology, showing that “purists” participate in politics, that “jihadis” can be “quietists,” and that it’s tricky to assess how theology might inform violence.

Nevertheless, the tripartite typology persists. Elischer invokes it to suggest that Salafis exist along a spectrum from quietism to jihadism, and that the more they participate in politics, the closer they move to jihadism. The case of Dicko should show why that’s too simple: Dicko participates in politics a lot, but he condemns jihadism and in no way seems to be veering toward terrorism. For Elischer and others who are suspicious of all Salafis, however, Salafis’ political behavior will always be interpreted as inherently suspect. In this worldview, other actors participate in politics with integrity, but the Salafis enter politics with the end goal of undermining democracy. If one holds Salafis to be inherently anti-democratic, then they can never prove their democratic bonafides – they will always be asked to defend themselves from the claim that they are potential terrorists.

In this, Elischer’s analysis echoes a wider claim echoed across various media outlets. It is not just Salafis, but all Muslims, who face intensive scrutiny about their relationship to violence. I commend Omid Safi’s question to the reader, “I wonder what [that relentless scrutiny] says about our preconceived notion of a majority of Muslims worldwide secretly being complicit regardless of what they do, regardless of what they say, and regardless of how many of their leading scholars, imams, and experts are denouncing the practices of ISIS” – or any terrorist group.

Returning to Mali, how are policymakers supposed to act on Elischer’s analysis? The “international community” is supposed to “note” the “destabilizing” influence of Dicko and other Salafis in southern Mali. Then what? Demand that Malian politicians repudiate Dicko? Seek to influence elections to the High Islamic Council? Advocate for the arrest of non-violent Salafi preachers? Elevate Sufi Muslims and empower them to marginalize Salafis within Malian institutions and public life? Would any of those actions make it less likely that jihadist groups would storm hotels in Bamako? Or would this kind of suspicion of non-violent Salafis make it even harder to resolve Mali’s many interlocking crises?

Analysts and policymakers desperately need more complicated maps of the religious and political terrain of the Sahel. Nearly a decade into my thinking about the region, I realize how little I understand. But I do believe that “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomies serve everyone poorly, and can have dangerous and unintended consequences when applied in policy.

Buhari and the Perm Secs

BBC, August 29:

It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.

[…]

While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.

On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.

Vanguard, November 10:

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.

This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.

Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.

As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.

Talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje at Johns Hopkins SAIS This Wednesday

If you happen to be in Washington, DC this Wednesday, November 4, consider attending a talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje, a prominent northern Nigerian scholar and politician who has served in the House of Representatives and as adviser to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Bugaje is currently Convener of the Arewa Research and Development Project.

Bugaje will speak on “Democracy and the Challenge of Political Change in Nigeria” at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 12:30-1:45pm on Wednesday. The talk will be in Room 736, Bernstein-Offit Building, 1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

Article on Salafism and Media in Nigeria

This summer is proving to be a season when some of my academic projects are coming out. Earlier this month, Islamic Africa published an article I wrote about figures I call “mainstream Salafis” in Nigeria – i.e., shaykhs who do not belong to Boko Haram, and in fact reject the movement. The article for Islamic Africa discussed how mainstream Salafis find themselves in an awkward position as they become targets of violence by Boko Haram, and objects of suspicion from the state.

Recently, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published another article of mine. This piece deals with a similar group, but the focus is on how mainstream Salafis use electronic media, especially radio and recorded lectures. It’s called “The Salafi Ideal of Electronic Media as an Intellectual Meritocracy in Kano, Nigeria.” The piece argues, in part, that Salafis strategically use electronic media to level the playing field against religious rivals who have greater institutional power. This latter article has very little to do with Boko Haram, except perhaps for context regarding the media landscape in northern Nigeria.

One point I hope readers will take from both articles is that Boko Haram is not the only story in northern Nigeria. In fact, the Boko Haram story has distracted attention away from other, equally consequential topics. Muslim religious authority in northern Nigeria is being contested and reshaped through channels other than violence – and if one pays attention only to the violence, one will miss broader and perhaps ultimately more far-reaching changes.

The JAAR article is, for now, available for free at the journal’s website. It will at some point, hopefully this year, appear in print as well. If you read it, I  welcome any comments you might have.

Guest Post: An Account from Diffa, Niger about the War with Boko Haram

[The post below comes from Jochen Stahnke, a staff writer at the German national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He traveled to Diffa, Niger in May of this year to report on the fight against Boko Haram. He has graciously agreed to share some of his reflections here. – Alex]

The first corpse comes into view lying in the dust two hundred metres behind the closed border between Niger and Nigeria. It is the body of a Boko Haram fighter, probably middle aged, dressed in Islamic male robes. A couple of metres further into northeast Nigeria, the next corpse lies decomposing in the sand. I walk with Lieutenant Issoufou Umara, who is in command of Niger’s 50 gendarmerie troops positioned just behind the bridge that crosses the border river Koumadougou. The soldiers close to Diffa city are tasked with curbing Boko Haram’s influx into the neighbouring states that has already been going on for long time. The army of Nigeria has fled some 30 kilometres into the province of Borno, Umara tells me. His last battle against the Islamist sect here took place at the end of February. “In the night they hung their flag in the tree over there,” Umara explains. The battle raged for more than an hour. Umara’s soldiers claim to have killed 100 fighters. But they do not bury their enemies. “These people are not human beings,“ declares Umara.

The impact of the war is visible at every corner in Diffa city. As the immediate border is closed, there are fewer goods to trade in the marketplaces. This region of Niger, probably the poorest of an already poor country, has been the worst afflicted. Diffa used to import almost everything from the big neighbour to the south. But instead of traders, soldiers now roam the streets in their pickups, machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannons welded onto their flatbeds. The soldiers belong to the armies of two countries: Niger and Chad.

Chad has deployed two Mil-24 helicopter gunships, now stationed on the airstrip at Diffa airport. French special forces patrol the airport area. But neither they nor the roughly 50 Canadian and US special forces fight Boko Haram directly. Mostly they share reconnaissance and intelligence data, predominantly gained from three drones that are operated in the region. The French and North Americans occupy two separate camps right in the middle of the garrison of Niger’s army. Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, the zone commander for Diffa province, would prefer to receive more than reconnaissance support, military advice and “non-lethal“ support. Niger and Chad run a joint operations center in Diffa. But cooperation with Nigeria was difficult – at least when I visited Diffa in May, just before Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as new president of Nigeria. At that time, Nigeria only gave Niger permission to have a single liaison officer in Maiduguri. Joint operations did not take place, even though Boko Haram has no regard for national borders.

In Diffa, the sect recruits young men mainly among the poor Kanuri population. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri, the major ethnicity in this region. Indeed, says regional commander Salaou, Boko Haram is “a Kanuri thing as well.“ But not exclusively. “Over there in northern Nigeria there were a lot of bandits and gangs that fought for politicians – in return for money they intimidated political opponents.“ Upon assuming power, these politicians forgot their fighters. “And now they demand their share,“ says commander Salaou.

A couple of kilometres outside of Diffa city at the Koumadougou river lies Bagara, a small Kanuri village, where 30 or more young men have joined Boko Haram. A couple of others are detained at Diffa prison. Many of them have waited months there without trial. People in Bagara say Boko Haram pays new recruits 300.000 Francs-CFA, plus a motorbike and the promise of a bride. Often, Boko Haram issues threats via mobile phone and coerces locals in Bagara into buying food and fuel for them in Diffa city. At this time of year, the Koumadougou river is only a couple of metres wide and easy to cross. The rainy season has not yet started.

The army of Niger operates two checkpoints at the entrance to and the exit from the town of Bagara. People here are as afraid of the army as they are of the sect. There is a mandatory curfew after 6:00 pm. Recently, authorities have also banned the wearing of full-face veils. Local religious authorities are caught in between. An Imam in Bagara tells me that the boys who joined Boko Haram, while they were not his students, had not previously studied extremist ideology or attended anything like a salafi madrassa. Since the army has been operating the area, the Imam has not left his village. “I am afraid of the soldiers,“ he says.

Niger hardly spares its own population from harsh treatment. Ever since the Nigerian army has finally started entering Sambisa Forest to battle Boko Haram, a big share of Boko Haram fighters has withdrawn towards Lake Chad – a largely ungoverned area with hundreds of small islands where the sect has already suppressed the local population and controls a large portion of the fishery trade. In order to fight Boko Haram at Lake Chad, Niger has ordered all residents to leave – anybody still encountered at Lake Chad is going to be considered Boko Haram. (Chad is said to have issued the same order just this weekend). But Niamey did not prepare for what evidently had to follow: A mass flight of tenth of thousands, largely towards Diffa. Diffa city has been flooded with IDPs. To determine who is Nigerien or Nigerian is largely an academic question. Almost no one here has ID or passport. At first Niger did not allow UNHCR to set up refugee camps due to the fear that IDP settlements might become permanent and that Boko Haram could use them as hiding and recruiting grounds. But even after UNHCR was finally permitted to set up camps in Diffa, they largely remain empty. Most of the refugees and IDPs find refuge with relatives or leave Niger for Maiduguri and other Nigerian cities.

In Niamey, Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, who is considered a hardliner and close ally of president Mahammadou Issoufou, explains to me: “Soon“ there will be aerial attacks at Lake Chad. Therefore, in his view, “evacuating“ the population was inevitable. But to win the war, he says, it is absolutely necessary that Nigeria “pushes“ from south to north to prevent Boko Haram from retreating in the other direction. But can Boko Haram be fought with only military force? Massoudou explains: “Boko Haram are not rebels. They are criminals. When they raid a village, they kill almost everybody, enslave the young girls, and steal what is of value. You cannot see any logic to this mob. If they want to occupy territory, they will need to set up some kind of administration, to convince the population. But they do not do any of that.“ According to Massoudou, at least a thousand members of Boko Haram are imprisoned in Niger alone. “Many of them are also citizens of Niger.“ Boko Haram’s influence has long been spilling over from Nigeria into its neighboring countries, and this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. In fact, the most terrible part of the war, at least in the Lake Chad region, may be just about to begin. But will air raids be able to change what is also a problem of society?

Article on Salafis and Boko Haram in Nigeria

This month, the journal Islamic Africa published a special issue on Salafism in Africa. The issue includes an introductory essay by the University of Florida’s Dr. Terje Østebø, as well as articles on Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. I contributed an article on Nigeria entitled “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” In brief, the article argues that the rise of Boko Haram on the one hand, and state suspicions of Salafis on the other hand, have made life awkward for those Salafis who oppose Boko Haram. The article deals primarily with life under President Goodluck Jonathan (served 2010-2015); at some point I may post an update here or elsewhere giving a few thoughts on how non-jihadi Salafis are faring under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but it’s early yet.

Islamic Africa is normally paywalled, but the publisher, Brill, is offering free access to those who register. Details are here.

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