Political Islam in West Africa: Looking Beyond Immediate Security to Long-Term Strategies

On Thursday June 16, Timbuktu Institute presented a regional study on “Islam and Islamism in West Africa”, in partnership with the Abidjan-based Académie Internationale de Lutte contre le Terrorisme (AILCT).

While such a subject may seem daunting to some, the study is in line with the need to move away from a security vision focused on the immediate and on emergency management, and to reflect on the long term. The first aim of the study was to distinguish between a religion that is often wrongly stigmatized and the “manipulation of religious symbols for political and ideological motives by a tiny minority seeking to justify their violent discourse, which the majority of Muslims reject and even fall victim to”, explains Dr. Bakary Sambe, who coordinated the study with Dr. Lassina Diarra.

It is true that terrorism has become a regional security threat in recent decades. It often operates through radicalization “from below”, diverting the attention of decision-makers and experts from its method of penetration and conquest from above.

Yet the objective remains the same: the destruction of the state entity through terrorist violence, or its gradual de-structuring by undermining, through de-legitimization, the democratic and republican foundations of the region’s fragile states. In the case of West Africa, these initially evolved through the use of extremist ideologies stemming from political Islam, embodied by Salafism or Wahhabism, and other social pathologies. Until recently, the prevailing perception of sub-Saharan Islam as free from the influences of the Arab-Muslim world had led to a blurring of its specific features to the point of isolating it from developments affecting other societies.

In the same way that the spread of terrorism in North Africa had not sufficiently alerted us to the need to prevent the epicenter from spilling over into the Sahel, West African states had long maintained a dichotomy between the sub-Saharan and Maghreb spaces, neglecting the weight of interactions between increasingly transnational religious spaces and actors. Long locked into the “Algerian” paradigm of an ideological kinship between jihadism and religion, decision-makers showed little interest in the political expression of the instrumentalization of religion in the context of projects aimed, among other things, at challenging the republican form of the modern state in this part of the continent.

Manipulation of religious symbols and Islamo-Nationalism

This study has attempted to show that, beyond its violent expression in terrorism, which is the focus of attention today, political Islam ultimately sets itself the same objectives: to control society, to destructure the State, through a slow but well-considered method of undermining its foundations and legitimacy. The long years of state disengagement since structural adjustment have fostered the rise of religious organizations, which have gradually replaced the state, eventually competing with it in key sectors such as education, social work and youth policy. States are faced with imposed dualities in regal domains, suffering from a deficit often filled by Islamist movements. Political Islam, with its Salafist and, to a lesser extent, traditional currents, is becoming a socio-political issue in the sense that it relies on the manipulation of religious symbols and forms of contestation of state policy, especially with the clear retreat of left-wing ideologies. Today, Islamism has taken over urban centers, rural areas and even university campuses, feeding on the instrumentation of religion as an effective lever for mobilization, as well as contesting “Western hegemony” to the point of allying itself with former revolutionary tendencies that have become nationalist.

Challenging the Socio-Political Order

To gain a better understanding of this evolution, the study retraces the itinerary of Islamism, its currents, its expansion strategies and, above all, its conquest of elites, including political elites, using the case of West African countries to show how the region’s states are struggling to grasp this dynamic, which is less visible than the terrorist phenomenon. Research has also focused on strategies for challenging the socio-political order, without neglecting the explanatory variable of the ideological make-up of West African terrorist groups, which many experts on extremism attempt to question, often simply because of a lack of analytical grids.

In considering new regional trends and prospects for Islamism in West Africa, much attention has been paid to the emergence of socialization spaces in competition with public power, which can lead to a rise in religious conflict or the instrumentalization of denominational allegiances, such as the feared clash between radical Islam and certain evangelical currents. The same applies to the link between the growing power of conquering Salafist tendencies and the risk of ethnic-religious tensions in certain countries, as well as to trends towards a gradual “normalization” of Salafism, far from the perception that “Western” analysts may have of it.

Strategy to delegitimize West African states:

Salafist currents are increasingly able to shed their “imported” character, despite the action of the Gulf States, and are establishing themselves more and more as an “endogenous” reality that is also part of the politically buoyant issue of challenging the West and defending “societal values”. Added to this is the increasingly pronounced demand for greater representation of religious elites and values in the management of the state and public affairs, promoting a certain “Islamic morality” which, from their point of view, could come to the rescue of secularized governance deemed out of touch with local realities. An ongoing process of de-legitimization of the state that should attract greater attention and research interest.

This awareness of the need for a paradigm shift is particularly important in a regional context marked by a certain fragility of institutions and social equilibria, where all states face the complex challenges of having to build national resilience in an increasingly unstable regional environment.

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