The Radicalization of African Islam

The Wahhabis that took over northern Mali and are ascendant elsewhere represent a brand of religion that is foreign to the continent.

Each spring, the entire community of Djenne, a small town in central Mali, gathers to repair the natural damage inflicted upon the town’s Grand Mosque in the previous year. The festival, known as the Plastering of the Grand Mosque, is celebrated with food, music, and dancing. First established around the thirteenth century and rebuilt in 1906, the mosque is the largest mud brick building in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its annual re-plastering lasts several days, and the event attracts participants from well beyond Djenne’s borders.

Since more than 90 percent of Malians are Muslims, the Plastering of the Grand Mosque is deeply embedded within Malian society. It is the expression of a people who, over centuries, have cultivated a peaceful interpretation of Islam that is an amalgam of local culture and traditions.

This is not to say that Mali’s brand of Islam is less Islamic than others. Indeed, Mali’s numerous mosques and madrassas are a testament to the seriousness and vigor with which Islam has been practiced in Africa since the seventh century when Mohammed instructed his followers to immigrate to the Ethiopian coast (now Eritrea). From there and from North Africa Islam spread across the continent. This was how Timbuktu—a far-flung town in Mali now at the center of a battle against radical Islam—became an important center of Koranic studies.

The Malian version of Islam has been practiced since the 11th century. It has only recently been targeted by foreign elements who seek to impose their own stricter and often violent interpretation onto the country’s population. Specifically, Wahhabism, which espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran and condemns anything considered to be an innovation, has only spread to Africa from Saudi Arabia in recent decades.

Those who seek to spread this ideology have a plan, however. By providing social services for Africa’s poor, establishing madrassas, and evangelizing via firebrand preachers, Wahhabi leaders have galvanized support and converted many to their cause.

According to Antoine Basbous, who heads the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries, “the Saudis have been financing [Wahhabism] around the world to the tune of several million euros.”

The most well known Wahhabis in Mali are the followers of Ansar Dine, an organization that has been linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ansar Dine, led by Iyad ag-Ghaly, was responsible for occupying much of northern Mali during the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in March of last year. The group has laid waste to mosques and other historical sites, while flogging, beheading, and dismembering those who dared to stand in their way.

Malians roundly rejected this invasion. Imam Mahamoud Dicko, president of the Islamic High Council of Mali, has lambasted this alien form of Islam stating: “We have our [own] Islamic system, we worship God. This is nonsense what [the Wahhabi rebels] are doing—cutting hands, stoning people.”

In other words, the perversion of Islam in Africa in the form of Salafi-jihadism is an affront to an entire way of life that has been practiced even before Islam was adopted in many parts of what we now call the Arab world, and before the Wahhabi school of thought was founded in Saudi Arabia. The injection of this brand of Islam threatens an African identity that has thrived by blending of both Islamic and local traditions.

The French were right to support Mali and protect this interpretation of Islam, even if that was not their primary intention. But as the French prepare to leave, UN and African troops should be able to ensure that Mali remains free of these malevolent influences. It is imperative that the United States and its other Western allies develop clear policies to support Africa’s unique Muslim communities so that militant ideologies do not overtake them.

Dawit Giorgis, a former senior Ethiopian government official, is a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/KaTeznik. CC BY-SA 2.0.