On Salafism, Tabligh, and Other “Conveyer Belts”

Over at Political Violence at a Glance, Michael Kenney has a post on the idea of “conveyer belt[s] to terrorism.” Kenney is discussing the hardline British group Al-Muhajiroun, whose leader Anjem Choudary is scheduled for release from prison, but Kenney’s observations apply more widely. Here is an excerpt from his post:

The conveyor belt [thesis] suggests that most people who participate in al-Muhajiroun will escalate to political violence, but this is not the case. In my forthcoming book, The Islamic State in Britain, I show that many people who are exposed to al-Muhajiroun’s message do not join, and most people who join do not escalate to violence. Participation in this controversial network, which specializes in high-risk activism, is neither necessary nor sufficient for mobilization to violence.

If what Kenney says goes for a hardline movement such as al-Muhajiroun, then it is even truer of wider trends and movements, particularly the Salafi current as a whole and the global missionary movement Jama’at al-Tabligh. In the Sahel, in West Africa, and around the world, these tendencies are often accused of incubating or even causing the rise of groups such as Ansar al-Din (now part of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or JNIM) and Boko Haram. It is undeniable that the founders of these violent groups had direct connections to wider movements – JNIM’s top leader Iyad ag Ghali was deeply involved with Tabligh during the 1990s and early 2000s, and Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was connected to the wider Salafi movement and the Izala organization in northern Nigeria during the same period. But it does not follow that involvement with Salafism or with Tabligh is inherently radicalizing or inherently conducive to violence, as one often hears. Jacob Olidort has put it best (p. 4, footnote 1): “While percentages are hard to measure, if most Salafists globally were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different.” The growing scholarly literature on both Salafism and Tabligh, including in West Africa (for example, Marloes Janson’s book on Tabligh in Gambia), does not give the impression of increasing propensity to violence so much as it gives the impression of deep changes in conceptions of piety.

Not everyone agrees with Kenney about al-Muhijaroun, of course:

But we would do well to recall Kenney’s phrasing: “neither necessary nor sufficient.” The argument is not that a group can’t function as a gateway, the argument is rather that we need a multi-factor analysis to determine what makes someone willing to commit violence. I have no stake in the specific debate about al-Muhajiroun, but I do have a stake in the wider debate about “conveyer belts.” If certain ideological perspectives and affiliations are seen as the sole factor in predisposing someone to commit violence, then a great deal of other data can get screened out, and we risk demonizing large numbers of people – and, in the worst case, pushing people into violence who might not otherwise have leaned that way.


France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly in Chad

Yesterday French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly visited Chad. She met President Idriss Deby and Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah, and she visited military bases connected with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multi-National Joint Task Force.

The visited seems meant as a vote of French confidence in Chad and as a further demonstration of French support for these two African-led regional counterterrorism forces. It is hard not to think that the visit is also at least partly in response to recent flickers of insecurity in Chad, including the CCMSR rebellion in the north and a recent Boko Haram attack near Lake Chad. RFI predicted that issues of financing and strengthening the G5 Sahel Joint Force “will be at the center of the discussions.” RFI adds that French President Emmanuel Macron may visit Chad around Christmas to see French troops there.

Finally, a quick note on Djadallah – he’s something of a fixture in the defense ministry, having been in his current role since August 2016 (making him something of a survivor amid repeated cabinet reshuffles) and he previously served in the role in 2008.

Nigeria: Quick Thoughts on Oby Ezekwesili’s Candidacy, Technocrats Turned Politicians, and More

Yesterday I posted about former Vice President Atiku Abubakar securing the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) nomination for Nigeria’s February 2019 presidential election. Today I’d like to mention another candidate, former cabinet minister, former World Bank Vice President, and #BringBackOurGirls organizer Oby Ezekwesili. She is running as the candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria.

From the BBC:

Along with reaching out to Nigeria’s youth, Ms Ezekwesili has an obvious appeal to women, and her high profile in the country and international respectability could also boost her candidacy.

She is also from the south of the country, while the two leading men are from the north, so this could help her pick up votes among southerners who want one of their own to lead the country.

Ms Ezekwesili is likely to elicit some support and could make the APC and PDP nervous, but the power of the established parties may be hard to overcome.

I am particularly interested in this candidacy because I have been following, for some time now, the ways that senior Nigerian technocrats become politicized and/or attempt to convert their technocratic reputations into political capital. I explored these themes in an article published at African Studies Review earlier this year. That article started with an excerpt from an interview Mehdi Hasan did with Ezekwesili, where he repeatedly insisted (and she repeatedly denied) that she was a politician. Funny how things change.

Nigeria: Thoughts on the PDP’s Nomination of Atiku Abubakar

Yesterday, 7 October, Nigeria’s former ruling party (the People’s Democratic Party or PDP) selected Atiku Abubakar as its nominee for the 2019 presidential elections. Abubakar served as Nigeria’s Vice President from 1999-2007, the first eight years of the PDP’s sixteen-year reign.

Abubakar has been a party’s nominee for president once before. Late in the second term of President Olusegun Obasanjo (also served 1999-2007), the two men fell out, partly over power struggles and partly over the issue of Obasanjo’s desire to overturn term limits and obtain a third term. In 2007, Abubakar was the Action Congress’ nominee. He placed third in the general election that year, taking 7% of the vote; the winner was Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, while Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria’s current president, elected in 2015) took second place. Atiku also eyed presidential runs in 2011 and 2015, although in 2015 he backed Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC). He then left the APC in 2017 and returned to the PDP.

Abubakar hails from Adamawa, in the far northeast. His political rise, ironically, was through the network of Yar’Adua’s older brother, the late Shehu Yar’Adua (1943-1997). In 1998, he won the gubernatorial election in Adamawa, but was quickly tapped as Obasanjo’s running mate. It’s worth mentioning here that S. Yar’Adua was Obasanjo’s second-in-command when the latter was military head of state from 1976-1979.

Returning to the present, Abubakar has defeated or outmaneuvered a slate of other prominent northern politicians, including various governors and senators to become the PDP nominee. These politicians include Senate President Bukola Saraki, of Kwara State; Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, of Kano; Governor Aminu Tambuwal, of Sokoto; and former Governor Sule Lamido, of Jigawa. Some of these governors only recently rejoined the PDP after several years in the APC and a transitional phase in the “Reformed APC.”

In victory, Abubakar is emphasizing the theme of “let’s get Nigeria working again.”

Other candidates are pledging their support:

As of now, I do not rate the PDP’s chances highly. In fact, they are exposed to some of the same dilemmas that confront the ruling APC: (1) only one person can be the nominee, which creates restlessness among other politicians and can lead to repeated party-switching; and (2) seniority, and money, weigh heavily in parties’ selections of presidential nominees, meaning that the nominees are not always the best candidates, nor are they always well positioned to promise genuine change to voters. The PDP had to pick a nominee, of course, but picking Abubakar may now make them vulnerable to some of the defections that have plagued the APC this year (and that plagued the PDP during the lead-up to the 2015 elections). Meanwhile, one wonders whether the prospect of choosing between Buhari and Abubakar will not leave many southerners indifferent, not just because both candidates are northerners but also because both men represent the class of military officers and their proteges that have dominated presidential politics for decades. Abubakar, moreover, seems to me to be someone with clout and influence but without widespread personal popularity. Buhari, despite his many weaknesses as a president and a candidate, still has a charisma that Abubakar lacks. If figures such as Kwankwaso, Saraki, Lamido, and Tambuwal remain with the PDP and successfully peel their states out of Buhari’s column, the PDP and Abubakar might be able to put together a winning map that includes parts of the north, the middle belt, and the southeast (and here I mean both the South East and the South South). But I’m a bit skeptical that that will happen.




Mauritania: Muslim Scholars and Associations React to the Closure of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama

Last week, I wrote about Mauritanian authorities’ decision to close Markaz Takwin al-Ulama, or the Center for the Training/Formation of Islamic Scholars. The school is run by Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, a prominent Islamist cleric in Mauritania and beyond.

As one might expect, the closure has elicited criticism from Islamists within Mauritania. I was a bit surprised (though I should not have been) that the issue reverberated beyond Mauritania as well.

Here are some of the reactions.

Al-Dedew sent an audio message to supporters and students of the Markaz:

Employees of the Markaz protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott, stressing the school’s international and scholastic character:

The staff also went to court:

In Burkina Faso, the Salafi association Daawatoul Islamia (The Islamic Call) denounced the closure and, interestingly, attributed it to authorities’ anger at al-Dedew’s criticisms of Saudi Arabia (h/t Louis Audet-Gosselin, whose tweet about this Facebook entry inspired my blog post):

The Moroccan Islamist association Movement for Unity and Reform (Harakat al-Tawhid wa-l-Islah) also released a statement (Arabic original, French summary) criticizing the closure.

Some Mauritanian actors, meanwhile, took more complex positions. The ex-al-Qa’ida cleric Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Muritani, who returned to Mauritania in 2012 and became a prominent scholar) met with various actors in the debate, including the president, and issued a statement on his Facebook page. The statement argued that the closure was not part of a “general government policy” toward Islam or Islamic institutions, but rather was “an individual issue.” Ould al-Walid went on to say, however, that he and others had asked the president to reconsider the decision and reopen the school. (The statement is much more complex than that, though, in both its argumentation and its politics, and it merits its own blog post.)

Finally, I should point to the response of more official, government-leaning ulama in Mauritania. Two bodies – the National Union of Mauritanian Imams and the League of Mauritanian Ulama – released a statement that praised what they called “tangible services and achievements in the Islamic field” under the president’s leadership. The statement went on to say, without mentioning the Markaz, that “the modern institutes have not succeeded in graduating/producing any scholar from our society since their founding and up to today.” The struggle over the Markaz, in such scholars’ view, is not just a political battle between the government and Islamists but also an epistemological battle over the status and transformation of the Mauritanian mahdara (classical Islamic school).


Revisiting Mali’s Family Code Debate Through the Lens of Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

I don’t read as many books as I should, and so I’m always belatedly making my way around to things I should have read years ago. One such book is Noah Feldman’s The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State.

As Feldman discusses the shrinking role of Sunni scholars in judicial affairs, I’ve been reminded a bit of debates around the family code in Mali, particularly in 2009. To recap, a revised family code passed in 2009 included provisions on age of marriage and other matters that a wide range of Malian Muslim leaders found objectionable. After mass mobilization against the code in 2009, followed by several years of maneuvering, the key provisions were all softened. I covered the debate here on the blog at the time, and several colleagues have addressed family law in Mali before and during the 2009 protests.

My own coverage emphasized the intellectual/ideological debate itself – that is, the ways that different parties to the conflict argued over the content of the laws. But reading Feldman’s discussion of how Sunni scholars (primarily in the Arab world) lost influence and jurisdiction to government judges over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it occurred to me that the family code debate in Mali was also a struggle over whose authority would reign in a sphere still partly dominated by Muslim scholars, judges, etc.

Here is Feldman on global (or Middle East regional) trends, from p. 69:

Codification alone…need not have devastated utterly the scholarly class, who could have been transformed into a judicial class. Scholar-judges would no longer have had the special role of discovering God’s law, but they could at least have retained some of their lost dignity as designated official interpreters charged with applying the provisions of the code.

But the scholars did not manage to retain even this role, at least not in the Sunni Muslim world. The judicial function was eventually taken up instead by a new class of judges trained in modern law, which is to say Westernized law. Unlike the scholarly class, the new judges had no tradition – however attenuated – of independence from the state. To them, Law emanated not from God but from government…As a consolation prize, the scholars retained jurisdiction over family law, central to personal life, though not typically to the life of the state.

Now, this doesn’t apply wholesale to Mali in 2009. For one thing, family law was already codified in Mali by then, and indeed we see moments of debate over family codes in the Sahel going back to at least the 1970s. But the process Feldman describes, and his evocative description of family law jurisdiction as the scholars’ “consolation prize,” does point to how the family code debate dealt not just with the content of the law or with the political power of Muslim organizations writ large, but also with one (or the most) sensitive arena vis-a-vis their authority over constituents. This is not to say that participants in the anti-revisions mobilization were not sincerely pious or sincerely concerned (nor is it to say that there weren’t some cynics among them!). But I suppose what I am trying to say is that the family law debate evoked an already-existing competition between Muslim scholars and the state, a competition felt in some sectors and not in other, and perhaps felt most acutely in the sphere of family law.

Here we would do well to recall Benjamin Soares’ article on the Malian family code debate. He argues that there is a profound gap between the code (old or proposed) and the lived experiences of Malians (Muslim and even non-Muslim) in the sphere of family law, marriage, etc. Particularly relevant for this post is how Soares points out that many religious marriages in Mali go unrecognized by the state, which can pose problems for ordinary people – and, Soares goes on to say, there was even a phase after 2002 when Muslim judges and associations began issuing certificates for religious marriages, a trend that made the competition for authority explicit and that eventually evoked a government order to cease (see pp. 423-427). These arguments, I would say, complement Feldman’s discussion about earlier trends in the Middle East.

So to sum up, it’s not an accident that the family code caused as big of a debate and a mobilization as it did. It was not necessarily that Muslim organizations latched onto this issue somewhat arbitrarily, but rather that family codes in particular touch on core sensitivities in a sometimes unspoken, sometimes explicit competition over authority between scholars and states. That competition has a deep local history in Mali but also a global history reaching back to the nineteenth century.


Notes on the New JNIM/AQIM Video

The jihadist formation in the Sahara-Sahel region, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), recently put out a new video called “The Battle Continues.” JNIM is a subsidiary of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MENASTREAM, as always, has a good rundown of some key moments, personalities, and images.

The video is heavily branded as an al-Qaida effort. It returns repeatedly to images of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures. The video presents the jihadist fight in Mali as both (a) a replay of medieval battles between Muslims and Crusaders, and (b) a part of a global struggle that extends to Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Surveying the contemporary global scene, the video emphasizes images of Muslim civilians being killed and repressed by security forces. The video also displays images of numerous dead jihadist leaders, ranging from Yemen’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi to AQIM’s Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd to Ansar al-Sharia Libya’s Muhammad al-Zawahi. In other words, the video wants the viewer to think something along the lines of “Muslims are being unfairly attacked around the world and al-Qaida leaders are giving their lives to defend them.”

But to just take the video as an expression of transnational jihadist ties would be to miss some of its politics. So much analysis of jihadist videos, in fact, focuses on the visual symbolism to a degree where the actual content of what jihadists are saying goes under-analyzed. And this video, albeit not very original, is trying to stake out some political ground vis-a-vis both France and toward interpretations of the Mali conflict that JNIM does not want to become dominant.

In one sequence starting around 8:35, the video pivots to France, showing television clips of Western analysts asserting that France’s fight in Mali is motivated by ambitions to control resources in the Sahel. But then the video cuts to a clip from RT, where the announcer asks whether France’s intervention in Mali was in fact part of a war on Islam. JNIM cleric Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir makes that case emphatically, arguing that “it is not an economic or interest-based war in the first degree…Rather, it is a war of creeds between faith and unbelief, Islam and polytheism, between the sovereignty of man, which France wants, and the sovereignty of God alone, for the sake of which the mujahidin are struggling (Bal hiya harb ‘aqadiyya bayn al-iman wa-l-kufr, wa-l-islam wa-l-shirk, bayn hakimiyyat al-bashar, kama turiduha Faransa wa bayn hakimiyyat Allah wahdahu, kama yujahid min ajliha al-mujahidun).” Al-Muhajir argues that economic interests are at stake, but as a secondary matter in this broader combat he sees between belief and unbelief. The video then includes two clips of French philosopher Michel Onfray arguing that France has double standards for when it invokes human rights justifications in foreign affairs.

To me, this was the most interesting argument the film made – ironically, both France and JNIM/AQIM now work to combat the perception that this is a conflict over untapped resources in the Malian Sahara. One wonders whether JNIM is not also, indirectly, trying to combat the perception that it too is a product of a conspiracy involving great powers. Interestingly enough, JNIM may lose ground in the information war if what it considers the wrong kind of conspiracy theories gain too much traction – JNIM wants audiences to understand the conflict as black and white, and that requires arguing that France is explicit about its “Crusader” ambitions, rather than arguing that France has hidden agendas.

Another part of the video’s message revolves around the romanticization of jihadist life. This comes across to some extent in the military sequences, which includes both JNIM’s own training footage and then news footage of the aftermath of JNIM’s June 2018 attack on a G5 Sahel Joint Force base in Sévaré, central Mali. Later, the video shows jihadists impersonating a United Nations convoy as they prepare for and execute their April 2018 attack on a MINUSMA base in Timbuktu.

But the romanticization comes across most strongly in sequences highlighting ordinary fighters. This section emphasizes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the fighters, who are presented as joyful, pious, and disciplined youth. If this is in part a recruitment video, the pitch is based largely on the idea that recruits will enjoy a pure life and a vibrant camaraderie. The segments featuring JNIM/AQIM’s Yahya Abu al-Hammam and an audio message from JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali are relatively unremarkable; the young fighters come across as more three-dimensional, and that may be intentional on JNIM’s part.

To me this read as a demonstration of strength and a reminder that JNIM is digging in for the long haul (hence the title). The video did not break any new ground, ideologically speaking. There was not as much emphasis on building popular support as I might have expected; but again, perhaps the theme of camaraderie stood in for a more explicit pitch.