Wednesday, December 15, 2004

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West Africa and Islamic fundamentalism

As part of the Chicago Tribune's continuing series on the internal struggle among Islamic societies between the forces of moderation and the forces of radicalism, Lisa Anderson has a fascinating front-pager on the country of Mali.

Mali appears at first glance to be one of the most improbable democracies in existence -- life expectancy is at 45 years, infant mortality is higher than 100 deaths per 1,000 live births, it's literacy rate is 46%, and according to the CIA World Factbook, "is among the poorest countries in the world, with 65% of its land area desert or semidesert and with a highly unequal distribution of income."

However, as Anderson chronicles:

Mali's young democracy is thriving with all of the attendant institutions, including a legal system, however still imperfect, and a free news media that includes 42 privately owned newspapers and 124 private radio stations, the most popular medium in a highly illiterate country. It also is essentially free of human-rights abuses, according to a 2003 State Department report.

The bulk of her story is on efforts by Islamic radicals from Algeria and Pakistan to attract supporters in the arid northern part of the country, and American efforts to combat this push. Some highlights:

Democracy also guarantees freedom of religion, though, and new types of Islam are challenging the traditional faith. In the past three years, ultraconservative Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia have opened 16 mosques in Timbuktu, a development termed disturbing by the city's mayor, Aly Ould Sidi.

"All these people who are Wahhabi are not citizens of Timbuktu. They come from outside," he said. "Their presence here has raised a kind of conflict with the people."

Added Abdrahmane Ben Essayouti, imam of the Djingareiber Mosque, the oldest of three great 14th Century mosques: "Wahhabis come here from Saudi Arabia. They have means. They give money and build mosques and schools and buy books.

"If you don't have means, you cannot stop them," he said. "And if we don't pay attention, they will use the students against us."

Moreover, Wahhabism often clashes with Malian practice of Islam.

"According to Wahhabism, you cannot go through someone, but should go directly to God. That's why we have a problem here--we have 333 saints," said Imam Sidi Alpha Maridje of the Sareikeina Mosque.

He's not the only one disturbed by the situation, however.

As dusk fell, some two dozen men of Araouane, many swathed in the turbans and the long, loose robes of desert nomads, solemnly crammed into a one-room, mud-walled house, settled onto woolen mats strewn across the sandy floor and looked expectantly at Vicki Huddleston.

Seated on the floor before them in a modest white shirt and mushroom-colored, ankle-length skirt, she smiled and respectfully thanked the village chief for receiving her.

Throughout Mali's history, every village, however small, has had a chief, who either inherits the job or is selected by the village. Accountable to the people, he and his council make important decisions for the village, listen to problems and adjudicate disputes. The institution thrives under democracy and, in many ways, helped prepare the way for it....

The settlement, half-buried in sand, has a rudimentary Koranic school but no electricity, running water, roads or medical facilities. It needs everything, but most of all a source of clean water that isn't contaminated by the camels and goats.

Huddleston and her staff have come to discuss a new well and solar pump the U.S. will provide. But she takes up a more urgent matter first.

"I will be very frank with you," she began, sweeping the room with her eyes. "We are very worried about the Salafists who have been seen in this zone. We know you want to preserve your traditional religion. We think democracy depends very much on a traditional Islam like yours."

The chief said he had heard about the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, an Islamist group advocating overthrow of Algeria's secular government, but never had seen any of its members. Nonetheless, he assured Huddleston that Araouane had not abandoned the traditional and tolerant Malakite Islam of Mali. "We are against those who would try to change our religion and culture," he said.

Another element seeking to change Malian culture in recent years is the fundamentalist Pakistani sect Dawa al-Tabligh, which has joined the Wahhabis in seeking converts in Mali, particularly in the northern areas.

Fundamentalist bans on smoking, wearing protective fetishes and praying to ancestral saints do not easily endear these austere versions of Islam to easygoing Malians.

Many Malians, including President Toure, are skeptical that fundamentalists or terrorists will sink deep roots here.

"Mali is a very old Islamic country where tolerance is part of our tradition," Toure said.

"I'm not worried, but it's always good to take precautions," he said, noting that Mali has expelled some visitors and denies visas to others but declining to identify them.

Nonetheless, Toure agreed that in an environment like the north, where people are poor and opportunities are few, preachers bearing hope and extremists offering pride--and often cash--have their appeal.

"Poverty is the fertile ground of terrorism. Some get involved to get to heaven tomorrow. Others believe it can change the world today," he said, but he added that he sees no evidence of an immediate threat to the country.

Huddleston sees it differently.

"Like the Malians, I tend to agree that Mali is not going to change into a Wahhabi state," she said. "But it is worrisome because the more fundamentalism [there is], the more women are disenfranchised and the development of democracy is more difficult.

Read the whole thing. Anderson's implicit thesis -- and it's not a bad one, is that Mali's history of tolerant Islam is resilient enough to resist outside efforts at fundamentalism. Philip Smucker had a story in November's International Herald Tribune chronicling the efforts of African scholars -- with an assist from Harvard's Henry Louis Gates -- to exploit Mali's written history to reinforce this moderate brand of Islam:

Particularly relevant, black African and Arab scholars say, are accounts of how the African interpretation of Islam helped regulate the affairs of men, resolve disputes and provide a model of tolerance. Buried in the crumbling manuscripts of Timbuktu and neighboring cities, scholars are finding evidence of wars averted, sieges ended and lawlessness put to rest.

The information is all the more valuable for moderate Muslim leaders because of the rise of less tolerant forms of Islam, like Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism or the Salafist movement in Algeria, that are expanding their foothold.

[Oh, c'mon, this is French West Africa -- does this stuff really matter to Americans?--ed. Check out Nick Tattersall's report for Reuters on the significance of West African oil to the U.S. economy. This part stands out in particular:

The United States shares [China's] concern as it ventures into remote corners of West and Central Africa in search of alternative oil supplies to the turbulent Middle East which could also act as counterweight to OPEC's monopoly power.

The world's biggest energy consumer hopes the African region will provide up to a quarter of its oil imports within a decade, up from 14 percent now, and is working to guarantee stability in one of the most volatile parts of the planet.

From coup attempts inspired by dreams of petrodollars to concerns over Islamic extremists, political anarchy, civil war and piracy, the region around the Gulf of Guinea is seething with tensions that would faze the most intrepid investor.

"We are in no position to endure a serious oil supply disruption from the Gulf of Guinea today. The global oil market is stretched to capacity," said David Goldwyn, a former assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration and head of a Washington-based strategy think tank.

"We are not ready for trouble, but trouble is on the horizon," he told a U.S. Senate committee earlier this year.

Washington is particularly concerned that militant Islamists may gain a foothold in its new oil haven, where policing is often lax, millions of youths are unemployed and the sheer size of territories makes maintaining full control almost impossible.

"It's a good place for people who want to be left alone to operate outside the reach of the law -- to go unnoticed, to take time to recruit, to regroup," General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), told Reuters.

Click here for an African perspective on why the continent matters to the Bush administration. And, finally, check out John Donnelly's report in the Boston Globe on the military side of U.S. efforts to prevent Islamic terrorist groups from making further gains in the West African region.

posted by Dan on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM


Nigeria is the most pressing concern. AQ is pretty active there, I believe.

posted by: praktike on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Hopefully, Mali is able to resist the enemies from without trying to get in.

In reading the summation of democracy in Mali, I was reminded once again how wrong Fareed Zakaria is.

posted by: Dundare on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

It will be interesting to see what will happen to some of the major cotton growers like Burkina Faso have the cotton subsidies victory in the WTO upheld.

BTW, I heartily recommend Howard French's A Continent For the Taking. French was the New York Times West Africa Bureau Chief for a number of years. The book is a terrific read.

posted by: Randy Paul on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Do you know that the current Ambassador to SA was a former classmate of yours at Stanford? A CR protegee. Her expertise on all things Africa is stunning.

posted by: Diego on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Great point. Other comments at my blog. Please read them. I have only one friend who reads my blog.

posted by: Fearless Critic on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

All the more reason why European Command, which now covers Russia, Europe and Africa, should be broken up, and an African Command created. Events will force it on us someday. Why not now?

posted by: Wally Ramone on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

great post. other aspects:

Chinese Quest for Crude Increases Focus on Africa

West African Oil: Hope or Hype?

Islamists threaten western energy companies in Algeria

posted by: jayjee on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Brilliant post. A friend of mine just got back from two years in W. Africa (Ghana)--his stories were incredibly moving.

But, I have nothing to add to this. Wow.

posted by: Dan on 12.15.04 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

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