Nigeria and the Islamic University of Medina’s Dawra: An Interesting Anecdote

Last week, while doing a quick Google search to confirm the life dates of Umar Fallata (see below, I came across this obituary for the Nigerian Muslim religious leader Isa Waziri (1925-2013). The obituary contains an interesting anecdote about the dawra (tour), a kind of educational and recruitment initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina. The dawra, as I discuss in my book, was a key mechanism for recruiting Nigerian students to Medina; worldwide, Nigeria was one of the countries where the University conducted the most tours. The dawra was a key early step in the careers of several prominent Nigerian Salafis.

But as the anecdote makes clear, the Saudi and African scholars who ran the dawra took pains to make sure that it was not just a Salafi affair:

I saw one great quality with Shaikh Isa Waziri around 1994 during the annual Dawra, which is a course for Arabic teachers organized by the Islamic University of Madina under the leadership of Shaikh Abdalla Zarban Al-Ghamidi.  A dinner was organized at Da’awah Group of Nigeria in which almost all the Islamic Scholars in Kano were present. Equally present at the dinner was late Shaikh Umar Fallata, a highly respected Islamic scholar who teaches in the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It was an interesting event, because despite all the differences between Izala and Tariqa, many prominent Islamic scholars from Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala were present. But one thing you cannot miss during the dinner was that Shaikh Isa Waziri was the rallying point among these scholars, some of whom do not get along publically. On that day, I saw some wonders, because some of the scholars that members of the public thought would look away when they meet each other were so respectful of one another. You wouldn’t be completely wrong if you suggest that sometimes our scholars dribble the followership.

Not only was Waziri a prominent shaykh from the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but the dinner included figures from both the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya, the two most prominent Sufi orders in northern Nigeria. This is not to say that there are no tensions between Salafis, who are often vehemently anti-Sufi, and Sufis – it would have been quite fascinating to attend that dinner! – but it is to say that sometimes stereotypes don’t hold true. Moreover, as the author of the obituary points out, sometimes public hostility can give way to private cordiality.

The anecdote raises two other points:

  1. African scholars who took up residence in Saudi Arabia and became part of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment also, often, became key links between Saudi Arabia and Africa. One can see that in the case of this anecdote and Umar Fallata. The best English-language source on Fallata is Chanfi Ahmed’s 2015 book on West African scholars in the Hijaz. See also here (Arabic) for an official Saudi Arabian biography.
  2. I think a lot about the idea of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world (see here and here). That’s on display in this anecdote too, as the author of the obituary argues that no scholar in northern Nigeria today can play the unifying role of someone such as Waziri. No one wants to fall prey to a distorting nostalgia about the past – it’s not like there were no intra-Muslim conflicts during the twentieth century! – but it does seem like the Muslim world, and various Muslim communities, are much more internally fragmented than they were even a generation ago.

Guest Post on Salafism in Nigeria for CFR

Today’s post is outsourced to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa in Transition blog, which is authored by former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell. In my guest post there last week, I wrote about “Salafism in Northern Nigeria Beyond Boko Haram” – a summary, of sorts, of my recent book.

If you read the post, I welcome your thoughts here in the comments section.

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.

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.

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.

Writings Elsewhere, April 2015

I’ve written a few things that have appeared elsewhere in the past few weeks:

  • A new collection came out last month called Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medina and al-Mustafa, edited by Masooda Bano and Keiko Sakurai and published by Edinburgh University Press. I have a chapter in the volume that deals with non-violent Salafi networks in contemporary northern Nigeria – i.e., not Boko Haram, but a rather more influential group of graduates of the Islamic University of Medina, many of whom have staunchly and publicly opposed Boko Haram.
  • I discussed what Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet might look like at World Politics Review.
  • I analyzed Boko Haram’s brand of religious exclusivism for Oxford University Press’ blog.
  • I wrote for Global Observatory about hunger in Niger, especially as the hunger crisis relates to displaced persons and Boko Haram.
  • I couldn’t hold back from writing something about ISIS, even though it’s a bit out of my lane. I talked about ISIS’ intellectual genealogy for the Social Science Research Council’s The Immanent Frame blog.

Saturday Links: Jos Clashes, Mauritanian Muslim Debates, War Studies, Africa Policy

IRIN reports from one of the villages around Jos, Nigeria, scene of recent Christian-Muslim clashes:

In Kuru Karama village, 30km from Nigeria’s central city of Jos, only four of some 3,000 residents remain; the rest have fled or been killed, said village chief Umar Baza. Every home has been destroyed.

Mauritanian Muslim scholars met with jailed Salafists for a special debate this week, as part of a program that aims at “rehabilitating 68 imprisoned Salafists by challenging them to take more moderate stances.” Also, for anyone following the story about the fatwa against female genital cutting in Mauritania, here’s an article on efforts against female circumcision in Senegal, Mali, and Niger.

A few items from Sudan:

Speaking of Sudan (and other conflict areas around the world), two new studies on war zones are worth looking at: one on Darfur “has concluded that about 300,000 people died, but that disease, rather than violence, killed at least 80 percent of them,” and one on war “questions the most general assumptions about conflict, from how deadly war is to whether the number of war dead can even be counted.”

Burkina Faso fights climate change.

And finally, Africa Action offers its “Africa Policy Outlook 2010.”

What’s on your screen?