Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Islamophobia in Africa

The phenomenon of Islamophobia in Africa is as depressing as it is distressing, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Terrorists are not following Islam. Killing people and blowing up people and dropping bombs in places and all this is not the way to spread the word of Islam. People realise now that all Muslims are not terrorists”  Muhammad Ali

In the sparring between Islam and Christianity in contemporary Africa, Muslims recently landed a tidy, if almost accidental and curiously amicable punch. The incumbent president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was defeated by a relatively narrow margin of 2.3 million votes in the country’s elections. This was nothing to sneeze at, but it was not much to write home about either.

Africa cannot turn a deaf ear to the new breed of braggadocio currently at work in the heart of the continent as Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako’s marvellous 2014 film Timbuktu graphically depicts, showing the dynamics of Islamist militancy and terrorism in the heart of Africa. Sikasso’s presentation of the mindset of the terrorists would border on parody did it not have such tragic repercussions.

Not very far from the devastated ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, possessing one of Africa’s and the world’s most precious libraries and literary archives, the “giant of Africa” and the continent’s most populous nation with its largest economy, Nigeria, is set to achieve the highest average GDP growth in the world between 2010 and 2050. It is already ranked 30th in the world in terms of GDP.

The exclusion of Christians from the political decision-making process during many of the decades that succeeded the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), widely viewed as one taking place between the predominantly Muslim north and the overwhelmingly Christian southeast, served twin objectives. Neither, however, bears too much scrutiny. The aim of the largely Muslim generals who have run the country since has been to accelerate development in the underdeveloped Muslim northern states and curtail the potential power of the Christian, oil-rich southeastern states.

 “Ever since the Crusades, when Christians from western Europe were fighting holy wars against Muslims in the Near East, Western people have often perceived Islam as a violent and intolerant faith, even though when this prejudice took root Islam had a better record of tolerance than Christianity,” notes UK scholar Karen Armstrong.

Alas, the same cannot be said of Africa south of the Sahara, where for centuries Islam was associated with the slave trade and violence. The jihads that ravaged the region left an indelible mark on the indigenous people who rejected the new religion and refused to convert to Islam.

Naturally, Armstrong did not have bombing campaigns and systematic enslavement, or the forced Arabisation and Islamisation of the Nuba Mountains people of Sudan’s Kordofan region who have suffered “Islamophobia” for generations, in mind when she wrote these words. In certain African social and political circles, the hypothesis persists that Islam was and is a violent and intolerant faith.

Social media networks in Africa south of the Sahara attest to the fast-increasing Islamophobia on the continent. The paradox is that those who espouse such a perspective overlook the fact that most of the victims of militant Islamist terrorists are themselves Muslims.

“Of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists or sympathetic to terrorists. Equating all Muslims with terrorism is stupid and wrong. But acknowledging that there is a link between Islam and terror is appropriate and necessary,” notes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali dissident, now resident in the US, who has denounced Islamist terrorism in a courageous act that nearly cost her her life.

It would be impossible to survey Islamophobia across an entire continent, so this article will focus on a number of key countries, and in particular the two with the largest number of Muslims, and their Christian compatriots, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

THE CASE OF NIGERIA: Xenophobic populism is prevalent in countries like Ivory Coast where Muslims are systematically suspected of being foreigners. This is not the case in Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Nigeria, a nation of approximately 180 million people with a GDP of $1.109 trillion, witnessed the inauguration last Friday of its new president, Muhammadu Buhari, an aristocratic Muslim who first took power as Nigeria’s military strongman in 1984-1985. His presidency today is a fillip not only for Nigeria’s Muslims, but also for all political activists, Muslim, Christian, animist and atheist, who have abhorred the rampant corruption, crony capitalism, nepotism and criminality that have sadly rendered Nigeria notorious.

Buhari must be better than Jonathan, many voters must have thought, and the result was that many of Nigeria’s Christians voted for Buhari in an election that marked the first time in the country’s turbulent history that an incumbent president has been ousted by the ballot box.

“This should come as no surprise. In the 1960s, Muslim presidents ruled over predominantly Christian nations and vice versa. Cameroon’s late first president Ahmadou Ahidjo was a Muslim even though Cameroon is mainly Christian. Likewise, a host of Christian leaders presided over overwhelmingly Muslim nations.

“The first president of Senegal, a country that is 95 per cent Muslim, was Leopold Sedar Senghor, a Roman Catholic. Similarly, Roman Catholic Julius Nyerere was the first president of predominantly Muslim Tanzania,” Mohamed Fayek, head of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a former minister of information and the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s chief emissary to Africa, told the Weekly.

“I have travelled extensively throughout Africa, and I have never encountered hostility from Christians. African Christians have always been hospitable and welcoming. They received us as brothers and as comrades in arms against colonialism and neo-colonialism. At one point Nasser encouraged me to introduce clerics from Al-Azhar to my African hosts, not to proselytise, but rather to teach African Muslims the tenets of Islam and the Arabic language.

“Many African students were given scholarships and sent to Al-Azhar University, the oldest institution of Islamic higher learning in the world, and Al-Azhar clerics and scholars were dispatched to various countries in Africa south of the Sahara. Africa’s Christian leaders never saw this as some sort of conspiracy to Arabise or Islamise Africa,” Fayek continued.

However, he did concede that over the years the role of Al-Azhar in Africa south of the Sahara has diminished. Takfiri or Salafist groups awash with oil wealth began to replace Al-Azhar and to introduce notions of Islam that were alien to it and to the tolerant traditions of Sunni Islam and especially to the Sufi orders long established in West and East Africa.

The Nigerian Civil War, sometimes known as the Biafran War, first upset the religious balance in Nigeria. Easy-going attitudes were no longer tolerated. “I was intrigued by the phenomenon prevalent in Africa south of the Sahara when one brother was Christian, Roman Catholic or Protestant, and the other Muslim or someone who adhered to traditional African religions,” Fayek said.

Matters came to a head in the aftermath of the civil war. The country’s 1963 census, unreliable though it was, indicated that 47 per cent of Nigerians were Muslim, 35 per cent Christian, and 18 per cent adhered to traditional African animist religious traditions.

Islamophobia began to spread in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in 2001. To begin with, the phenomenon of intense suspicion and fear of Muslims was not apparent. But then more African women began to don the niqab, a hitherto unknown phenomenon in Africa and an anomaly in an equatorial and humid continent where Muslims for a millennium have never veiled, let alone sported the niqab in which the face of a woman and her entire body including her hands and feet are covered in public. The colour is invariably black in an adaptation of a traditional costume of the Arabian Peninsula.

Islamophobia is the prejudice against, and profound hatred towards or fear of, the religion of Islam and its adherents, Muslims, regardless of whether they are terrorists or law-abiding citizens. There is a misconception, however, that Islamophobia is a phenomenon confined to the West.

The truth is that in recent years Islamophobia has become widespread in many other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, as can be seen by the persecution of the minority Muslims in Myanmar, the Ruhinga, by the Buddhist majority in the Southeast Asian nation.

To African Christians and many African Muslims who eschew the tactics of Islamist zealots, extremist excesses have culminated in disaster. The emergence of militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighbouring West African nations and Al-Shabab in Somalia, Kenya and other Horn of Africa countries has instigated a new wave of Islamophobia in Africa.

The continent has become acquainted with the consequences. A tragic incident recently took place when African Muslim asylum-seekers flung a group of Ghanians and Nigerians who declared themselves to be Christian overboard after a fracas in the Mediterranean.

The widely publicised beheading of 40 Christian Ethiopians by Islamist zealots in Libya last month horrified and outraged Christians and moderate Muslims alike. When on 21 September 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, all hell was let loose.

THE SITUATION IN ETHIOPIA: On a recent visit to Ethiopia, I noted a barely concealed antipathy towards Muslims and Islam. This was my ninth visit to Ethiopia and coincided with preparations for parliamentary elections in the Nile Basin country, headquarters of the African Union. I had met many Muslim Ethiopians and regarded Islam as an integral part of Ethiopian culture.

Whereas previous generations of Africans were largely cut off from print media and television, today many Africans have access to the Internet, and social media have become all the rage among young people who can afford Internet access. Moreover, militant Islamist terrorists such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabab have seized opportunities to propagate their ideas and instil a reign of terror on the social media networks.

These Islamist terrorists, slighted by their exclusion from public life, are not going to be goaded into consenting to Western-style democracy. They are sophisticated enough to understand that they cannot be accommodated in contemporary Africa. The crux of the matter is that Africans, Christians and Muslims alike, are convinced now more than ever that change can only be won at the ballot box. Democracy, and not violence, especially that espoused by the extremists, will inevitably result in yet another spate of violence, people say.

But there was palpable animosity nonetheless. The Ethiopian-Somali War fought between July 1977 and March 1978 over the disputed territory of Ogaden inhabited by Muslim ethnic Somalis, even though it was and still is Ethiopian territory, created an international crisis involving the Arab and Muslim states who sided with those whom they considered to be their Somali coreligionists.

“In those days, wars in Africa were mainly conjured up as a strategy of the United States to combat communism, or the spread of communism, in Africa. The Ethiopian-Somali War was not regarded as a Christian-Muslim conflict. It had nothing to do with Islamophobia,” recalls Helmi Sharawi, an Egyptian Africanist, in a conversation with the Weekly.

“My experiences began with my first encounter, in March 1956, with some African youths who were in Cairo for further studies or as representatives of the liberation movements with whom I worked as an intermediary with the Egyptian state. This work left an everlasting impression on me.

“I subsequently visited numerous African countries in my capacity as a journalist and academic. The role of Egypt in supporting many liberation movements on the continent at that time was critical. We in Egypt did not support the Eritrean liberation struggle because Eritreans were mainly Muslim.

“We supported them because we thought they had a just cause. Eritrean freedom fighters founded the Eritrean Liberation Movement in Cairo in 1958. In any case, when the Eritreans voted for independence they chose a Christian leader, Isaias Afwerki, and the country did not join the Arab League. Liberation from colonialism and not Islam was the driving force,” Sharawi commented.

Ethiopia, like Nigeria, is a nation of diverse cultures, religions, languages and ethnic groups. According to the 2007 census, there are over 25 million Muslims in Ethiopia, accounting for 34 per cent of the population. Ethiopia is not the only country where religion and anti-discrimination laws sometimes clash in practice, however.

Ethiopian policy-makers are acutely conscious that discrimination in all its forms, religious and ethnic alike, is not conducive to economic development and prosperity. Several Muslim Ethiopians occupy senior official positions and high-profile cabinet portfolios. This is the key to the country’s political and social cohesion. Moreover, ethnicity in Ethiopia does not always coincide with adherence to a certain religion. The Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, are equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

Religion in Ethiopia, just like in Nigeria, is clearly heterogeneous. Muslims are in a majority among the ethnic Somali, Afar and Harari communities in the country. Sufi orders abound in contemporary Ethiopia, including the Qaddiriyah order in the Wollo region. The contemplative and disciplined mysticism of the traditional Sufi orders, with their distinctive ritual incantations and dance, in Ethiopia, like in many other African countries south of the Sahara, has given way to a more Hanbali-Wahhabi, or takfiri or Salafi, form of Sunni Islam that eschews the Sufi orders altogether, regarding them as heretics.

As far as the history of Islam in Ethiopia is concerned, the first group of early Muslim migrants, known as the Sahaba, left Mecca in the seventh Muslim month of Ragab for Axum in Ethiopia where they were kindly received by the Christian King Armah, or Ashama ibn Abjar in Arabic, who was by all accounts “well known for being a just and God-fearing man.”

The first hijra took place in two batches of Sahaba in 613 and 615 CE. The Prophet Mohamed had asked his persecuted followers to cross the Red Sea where he assured them “a king rules without injustice, and there is a land of truthfulness that will be open until God leads us to a way out of our difficulty.” His followers heeded his advice and sought refuge in the Abyssinian capital of Axum, the early Muslims in Mecca having been harassed by the pagan Meccans of the Prophet Mohamed’s own Quraysh tribe.

UNESCO, the UN cultural arm, has designated the Ethiopian city of Harar, home to the Muslim Harari ethnic group who speak a Semitic language, the “fourth holiest city of Islam.” Harar has 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century. The patron saint of the city is Abadir Omar Al-Reda, a venerated warrior and religious cleric of Somali origin who is reputed to have constructed the city’s fabled Jamia Mosque.

The most vexing predicament of contemporary Ethiopia, however, is not religious difficulties. Instead, it is the sheer scale of the country’s development requirements, including the provision of jobs, electricity, health and education and other amenities, and the creation of wealth in an impoverished and underdeveloped land.

Nevertheless, relations between Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia historically have not always been harmonious. In the 16th century, Muslims from the Adal Sultanate under the leadership of Gragn Mohammed, or “Mohammed the left-handed” in Amharic, embarked on a jihad against Ethiopia’s Christians, who were historically known as the “Futuh Al-Habash,” or “Conquest of Abyssinia.”

THE CASE OF IVORY COAST: Ivory Coast, like Nigeria and Ethiopia, has a complex religious composition.

The religious divide between the Muslim north and predominantly Christian south of the country ended in a vicious civil war that only ended in late 2004. The African Union (AU) dispatched former South African president Thabo Mbeki to mediate in the conflict, but the country’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian, refused to concede defeat.

The new Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim, was only officially inaugurated when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Ivory Coast from its decision-making bodies. The vast majority of the 16-member ECOWAS are overwhelmingly Muslim.

African Christians were apparently incapable of stopping the scaremongering. “It is not a stand against a Muslim. It is not a stand against a man from the north,” Alassane argued regarding the situation in Ivory Coast, as if his comments would expunge his culpability. Such ignorant inferences abound, and African politicians use them with acumen and deliberation.

While such presumptions are not expressions of Islamophobia, reckless conjectures may precipitate it. Gbagbo, like many Africans south of the Sahara, often confuses religion with ethnicity and tribalism. Many Christians in contemporary Africa view Muslims as a menace. The media, including social media networks, have also played a pivotal role in propagating this misconception.

While unscrupulous politicians are partly to blame for this situation, Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab are primarily responsible for this tragic outcome.

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