The Radicalization of African Islam

The National Interest Online 28 February 2013
By Dawit Giorgis

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.” (continue reading...)