Shadi Hamid of Brookings and Andrew Lebovich, a scholar of Islam in North and West Africa, exchanged a number of emails this past year that unexpectedly generated a substantive dialogue on Islam and politics, focusing on a region, West Africa, which rarely receives much attention. Shadi and Andrew also discuss how Islamists conceive of state power, the role of Sufism, whether secularists and Islamists need each other, and how understandings of Islam change as education increases. The full email exchange is included below, edited for clarity. Click on links to jump to specific sections:
- Andrew on why there aren’t Islamists in Senegal
- Andrew on how Islamic organizations are still incredibly influential in formally secular Mali
- Andrew on how Islamism was more overt in Algeria
- Shadi on why Islamists need secularists, and there weren’t enough secularists in Senegal
- Shadi on how educational attainment shapes Islamism’s growth
One of the themes that has come up in our Rethinking Political Islam project is the question of what it means for Islamists to “win,” which I discuss here. And I’m just now going through the transcript of a working group we had with young Islamist activists and scholars of political Islam, and this remark from Brandeis’ David Patel stood out:
If we step out and look at the broader Muslim world, there is no relationship between a free system and Islamist participation in elections. Looking at datasets from across the Islamic world, Islamist movements have more often than not participated in elections in authoritarian environments. Some of the freest countries in the Muslim world, however, have no Islamist parties participating in elections. Senegal and Mali are very pious places and Islamic movements are very active in politics, but not as parties running in elections but as pressure groups that exert influence. Our discussion has been focused on the Arab world and bounded in time and space, and we are looking at Islamist movements at whether they have a party and are participating in politics. If you look at the broader Islamic world, you’ll see robust participation in forms other than elections.
Maybe something you can comment on, with a focus on Senegal, Mali, and to the extent it applies, Algeria?
I have some more reading and thinking to do, but I wanted to bounce some random ideas off of you early to see what sticks. This is an interesting set of questions to work through for my own doctoral research, so I’m really looking forward to participating in this conversation.
To the question about whether or not we are too committed to a framing of Islamism as representing political parties involved in the contestation of elections in one form or another, I think that’s a fair point. On the one hand, you have to make some sort of distinction about what constitutes “Islamism,” lest we fall into the trap whereby any Islamic organization becomes an Islamist organization in our retelling. At the same time, I think this distinction has at times been too sharp in the social sciences; when talking about Algeria, for instance, the historian and sociologist Omar Carlier has labeled the transition fromthe early reformist movement to the FIS “from Islahism (reformism) to Islamism.” But I think this is exaggerated.
The Algerian Association of Muslim Ulama (AUMA) certainly engaged in politics, and its religious and cultural reformist project was inherently political as well, given the context of French colonial rule. AUMA members were also active participants in the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), and the Algerian revolution. They served both as political advisers and as a supplier of fighters drawn from its network of schools. The FLN more or less absorbed the AUMA into its structure when the AUMA dissolved in 1956, and the FLN in turn adopted as its own credo that of the AUMA: Islam is my religion; Arabic is my language; Algeria is my homeland.
After the Algerian revolution, the AUMA essentially fractured back into its component parts, reflecting some of the stark divisions that were inherent in the organization even from its founding in 1931 and certainly by the mid-to-late-1930s. Those interested in interacting with the government went into the government, and essentially became the moral/cultural conscience of the Revolution. In essence, many of the AUMA members who worked with the government even during the period of high industrial socialism under President Houari Boumedienne, sought to shape the country’s outlook toward Islam and Arabic through their involvement with state institutions. Ex-AUMA people and their sons were at the heart of Arabization, developing curricula for primary schools, and leading morality campaigns that started in 1970 or 1971 to limit alcohol consumption, promote more modest public dress, and more. At the same time, some more hardline AUMA members who didn’t want to cooperate with the government started protesting basically as soon as Algeria became independent, and continued contesting the state at various points throughout the 70s and 80s. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which would become the largest Islamist party in the country, grew out of this environment, and certainly benefitted from the groundwork laid by the AUMA even as it benefitted from the opponents of the AUMA and the government after independence.
But this still raises a basic question: Was the pre-FIS reformist movement in Algeria “Islamist” or not? I’m honestly not sure where I fall on this, and I’d be interested in your thoughts as well. It seems to fall somewhere between the kind of “Islahism” Carlier describes and what many people usually identify as Islamism, namely the pursuit of discreet political goals through the formation of Islamic parties and participating directly in government under the auspices of those parties or movements. But this might mean it falls short of Islamism, or that our understandings of Islamism are too specific.
This then also raises an interesting question about what, if anything, separates North and West African experiences from the rest of the Muslim world. In Algeria, it took time for Islamic political movements to emerge because there was no space for multiparty politics until 1988. But at least according to some people, the FIS more or less formed privately in the early 80s, and then could take more concrete form after the move to multiparty politics.
In West Africa, the early reformist/Salafi movement embodied by the Muslim Cultural Union drew really heavily on the AUMA, and it likewise pursued similar themes—demanding increased support for Arabic and Islamic education, modernizing the educational program away from more traditional kuttab, or Quranic schools, trying to Islamize public life by, for example, encouraging crackdowns on alcohol sales, and trying to create a kind of distinct pan-African Muslim identity expressed partially in Arabic, partially in local languages (Wolof in Senegal, Bambara, Soninké, Pulaar in Mali, etc.) However, one major difference between these different cases was the power of religious counterweights to these new Islamic discourses. In Senegal, in particular, Sufi orders were predominant during the colonial period as political interlocutors and powerful economic actors with their own patronage networks and pathways to power and influence.
In the late colonial period, the emergent Salafi movement angered the Sufi orders tremendously, while “reformist” Sufi leaders like Ibrahima Niasse tried to thread a middle ground, maintaining Sufi identity and modes of transmission of authority and baraka (spiritual effusion) while also taking on active roles in the emerging institutions of the Arab world, encouraging Arabic education, and emphasizing piety and public morality. After independence, Senegal maintained formal secularism while also allying with some of the same Sufi orders and suppressing the reformist movement. This led to some really important political contestation in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and even the implication of reformist activists in violent protests and the killing of police officers, but no formal Islamist movement. Why?
My thinking is that because of the major role of Sufi orders and the initial lack of formal political space for contestation, the vaguely Islamist-inclined movements more or less confined themselves to trying to Islamize society and critiquing politics from the outside, while also trying to influence political elites. This could work in Senegal because the country was both formally secular and also deeply Islamized, in part due to the omnipresence of the Sufi orders, as well as the nearly millennia-long presence of Islam in the Senegambia. This created a weird situation where everyone was involved with Islam in some way, but the formal political sphere was still very uncomfortable with the thought of an overtly Muslim politics, especially as Muslim leaders at various times mobilized to try to change Senegal’s family code and the country’s constitution to diminish the role of secularism. In the 1990s and 2000s, younger Marabouts, or religious figures, from prominent Sufi families became more overt in their political contestation, prompting some scholars to describe them as being part of the “neo-brotherhood” movement, but it hasn’t worked out very well for them. Some of their followers defected because they felt the marabouts had become too closely associated with the ruling president. Today, these marabouts are still around and still try to directly influence politics, while at the same time in the 2012 parliamentary elections there were self-proclaimed Islamist parties, though they gained relatively few seats. So I think that the issue is at heart one of governance and a strong political culture in Senegal that has led both to a strong role for Islam in shaping public life and politics, but that still doesn’t really tolerate a kind of overt political role for Islam.
There are some strong parallels to the experience in Mali, even though the role of Sufi orders and even the history of Islamization is very different. What is today Mali was both the scene and victim of several of the reformist Sufi jihads of the 19th century, which both spurred religious reform and also Islamized a number of communities that were previously pagan/animist or simply not as overtly Islamic in their politics, in contrast to more central and northern areas of Mali that featured celebrated medieval Islamic kingdoms and great centers of learning and scholarship like Timbuktu. In the 1940s and 50s, the Salafi movement grew in both southern and northern Mali, but in somewhat distinct ways. In what is today considered southern Mali, the different strands of the Salafi movement tried to establish schools and study circles in places that were experiencing rapid urbanization and consequently where more “traditional” Muslim authorities were somewhat weaker. They were still very present, of course, but they were just not as widespread or as firmly implanted as they were in places like Timbuktu. The growth of these communities coincided with the growth and continuation of efforts from reformist Sufis to modernize and restructure Arabic education in Mali. So the ultimate point is that moving into independence, religious contestation and efforts to shift religious practice, education, and public morality were as alive and well in Mali as they were in Senegal.
In northern Mali, meanwhile, something that could be reasonably identified as a Salafi movement was growing, but in a less organized way. In places like Gao as well as Kidal, reformist contestation was very localized but still important, and several movements grew out of individuals who had circulated either in the sub-region (Ghana, Ivory Coast) or in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. At the same time, though, there was a very long tradition of Islamic scholarship in the Sahara, and some groups which had come into political prominence in the late 19th and 20th centuries like the Ifoghas Tuareg based their legitimacy in part on their Prophetic lineage (though they also benefitted tremendously from military cooperation with France to suppress previously dominant Tuareg groups). But the point is that movements for religious reform in northern Mali were driven by local concerns and local actors who could mobilize connections with other parts of the Muslim world for their own ends.
Moving into independence, the ruling party was ostensibly secular and socialist, and had an uneven relationship with different Islamic movements, both Salafi/Wahhabi (in local terminology) and Sufi. The government of Modibo Keita suppressed the main Salafi movement active in southern Mali a few years after independence, and the military dictator who replaced Keita in a 1968 coup, Moussa Traoré, briefly brought that organization back before suppressing them a few years later. At the same time, many of the wealthy benefactors of the Salafi movement continued to pursue their business interests, and both the Salafi educational project and the modernist/reformist Sufi educational movement started by al-Hajj Sa’ad Umar Touré in the 1940’s had a deep influence on Islamic education in Mali. The movement also helped pave the way for an increasing role for Salafis to play in shaping the increasingly role for Islam in public debates about education and morality in Mali. It’s worth emphasizing, however, that this was not just a Salafi project. Benjamin Soares and Robert Launay identified a growing “Islamic public sphere” created in Francophone West Africa by Tijani leaders from Senegal, Mali and Algeria who strategically cooperated with French authorities while also using the French to propagate the Tijani wird (the litany of prayers distinctive to each Sufi order), recruit followers, and push for a stronger recognition of and role for Islam and Muslim leaders in public life after the 40s and 50s. So this was a broad-based movement for the Islamization of public space and religious reform that encompassed both Sufis and Salafis before and after independence.
By 1991, when Traoré was deposed in a coup that led to the formal opening of Malian politics, the field was fairly ripe for the emergence of Muslim political activists. And these movements did emerge, but they were largely outgrowths of Muslim student organizations that were established a decade before. Mali also is formally secular, meaning that it was difficult for religious leaders or organizations to contest formal politics. Instead, like in Senegal, these movements continued to try to influence politics through their strong popular support and influence on social and religious issues. This influence became obvious in the last decade, when coalitions of religious leaders that included both “Wahhabis” and also non-Salafis killed efforts to reform Mali’s family code.
By the time the 2012 rebellion and then jihadist takeover of northern Mali happened , these religious leaders were in a prime position to wield influence over the ostensibly “secular” government. Some set themselves up as interlocutors and negotiators, others as opponents of any peace deal, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the two most important leaders of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Sheikh Mahmoud Dicko and Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, can each easily assemble tens of thousands of supporters for rallies. While both have different perspectives and Haidara is more associated with some Sufi practices, it’s also important to note that both come from a kind of reformist tradition. While Dicko is quite Salafi in orientation and in recent years began calling himself Wahhabi, Haidara also is vaguely Sufi without actually being part of a Sufi order, and he studied under Sa’ad Umar Touré, the progenitor of Mali’s modern Arab/Islamic educational project.
Both of these leaders, in addition to a host of less significant clerics, have increased their political involvement while still not constituting a formal political party. Before the presidential elections in Mali in 2013, a movement known as Sabati 2012 met with candidates and examined them for their knowledge of the Quran and Sunna and their positions on Islam, moralizing public life, and more. And Haidara has repeatedly given major pronouncements on government policy and even implicitly threatened to install an Imam as president if the wishes of Mali’s Muslims are not respected by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. He walked those comments back soon after making them, but the implication was crystal clear that he was going to increasingly mobilize followers to pressure the government if the government does not tend to his concerns and those of his followers.
So like Senegal, we have a situation in Mali where the secular nature of the state makes people skittish about a formal political role for Islamic parties, even when Islamic organizations and pressure groups have become incredibly influential on politics as well as public life. The question is: does that make these organizations Islamist? They don’t engage directly in politics, but in many ways they don’t have to. Mali’s Muslim leaders, like many in Senegal, can exert far more influence on the political sphere from the outside, while political leaders have an interest in portraying state institutions as secular even when this is blatantly not the case. Indeed, overt involvement with politics in Senegal actually hurt Muslim leaders, and gave the clear impression for many that it was better to shape politics through influencing society and political leaders, and since the 1990s Senegalese leaders have openly courted marabouts for this express purpose. The former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade directly linked his government to the Muridiyya Sufi order, and in the process caused lots of grumbling about their privileges and access to power and resources, as well as their entanglement with political life.
In Algeria, the total opening of politics in 1988 paved the way for an undeniably Islamist movement to emerge after decades of debates in mosques, schools, and institutions about the role that Islam should play in the state, including debates that took place even during the Algerian Revolution about what an “Islamic state” in Algeria might look like. I think one reason for this emergence in Algeria as opposed to sub-Saharan Africa has to do with the absence of a real counterweight to the FIS and other Islamist parties more linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, at least historically. The opening of 1988 and the later legislative and presidential elections presented a unique opportunity for people who had long-contested the state to have their shot at actual governance. The subsequent civil war did enormous damage to the prospect for Islamic governance (just look at how poorly the still-legalized Islamist parties fared in the most recent parliamentary elections in Algeria) but did not actually impact the Islamization of society. This is very anecdotal, but when I was in Algeria a number of people told me that the Islamization of daily life in Algeria and public morality was in some ways more present now than in the 1990s. At a minimum, it’s fair to say that it’s continued apace, in part because the underlying religious dynamics have not changed much, although the government began trying to reconstruct and reconstitute official Sufism after the early 1990s as an explicit counterweight to the FIS.
In Senegal and Mali, one very tentative explanation for the lack of any real Islamist movement is that the political culture (especially strong in Senegal but also important in Mali) does not leave much space for Islamic political parties, pushing different movements to contest politics in informal ways or at least in ways other than directly contesting elections. People tried at different times in the past, but adapted their approaches when they found that direct political contestation was a non-starter. But the role for Islam in shaping politics has grown pretty significantly in these countries, so even the lack of ‘Islamist’ politics does not mean that Islam does not and will not continue to impact politics there. This will become even more true as the governments in these places feel the need to more directly intervene in religious governance, especially in Mali where the government created a ministry of religious affairs for the first time after the 2012 coup. So this doesn’t mean that parties will emerge, but rather that clerics and other religious figures will continue to be very important in shaping politics (I could include something about the growing influence of qadis in deciding local legal issues in both northern and southern Mali, but that really is a whole other story).
This leaves out a ton of history, but I think it’s at least a jumping-off point. Let me know what you think!
Let me just say, well, wow. That was fascinating.
So here are some quick thoughts. I feel like “Islamism” is sort of like porn: you know it when you see it. That said, because of my particular research focus, I tend to equate mainstream Islamism with Brotherhood-inspired projects, although I do realize how this can be problematic. My rule of thumb is basically if they consider themselves Islamists, then that’s what they were, so my question regarding some of the Islamic organizations you mention is how would they react to the label? Michael Cook, I think, in some ways has one of the more interesting definitions of Islamists – “[Those who] are at pains to construe their politics out of their Islamic heritage.” I like this because it gets at the “project” part of Islamism: the mannered, self-conscious (and modern) approach to politics which I think is the hallmark of so many of these groups.
Islamic politics, whatever that might mean, has to be kept distinct from Islamism. The former, it seems to me, isn’t “mannered” in the way that Islamism is. This also gets at something which I discuss a bit in my book—the idea of Islamism without Islamists. Secularists can do Islamist things and maybe that makes them not actually secularist, but it doesn’t necessarily make them Islamist (otherwise you could pretty much argue that everyone in Egypt is an Islamist because pretty much everyone is okay, or says they’re okay, with Article 2 of the constitution, which states that the principles of sharia are the primary source of legislation).
It seems to me that, in your discussion of Senegal, a key variable is lack of toleration for overt political role for Islam or “lack of formal political space [for Islamists],” but what exactly do you mean by that? Because in both countries it seems like there has been, at least recently, multiparty political competition. Is it just that Islamist parties weren’t permitted to contest elections because they somehow ran afoul of the formally secular nature of the constitution, and, even if this were the case, it would seem that the response to that wouldn’t be to work outside of politics but to modify their Islamism so that it’s less Islamist, per the AKP model in Turkey.
One thing I’d be curious about is whether there’s a “secular elite” in Senegal, as there is in Turkey, Tunisia, and even Egypt. Islamists need secularists because Islamism requires a secular “other” to define itself as distinctly Islamist (this is the “mannered” element I mentioned above). Perhaps, because Islam imbued everyday life in the traditional Sufi sense, there just wasn’t a very widespread need for mainstream Islamist movements? High, or at least rapidly increasing educational attainment, seems to be highly correlated with Islamist success, so I wonder if Senegal and Mali lack the sort of professional class that is generally the engine for the rise of Islamist movements.
Also, a bit of a different issue, but I’m wondering why Mali and Senegal were/are “formally secular.” Most Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of Tunisia and Turkey, were never formally secular, so it’s surprising to me that there would be two other countries—particularly two where there was never a project of forced secularization—that would fit this category.
Another variable is the relative strength, of even presence, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wherever the Brotherhood or something like it operates, it seems to be able to jumpstart Islamist politics. Of course, this is a bit tautological but, still, it raises the question of why the Muslim Brotherhood never made inroads (or never tried to make inroads) in these two countries.
Lastly, when you say Muslim leaders can “exert more influence on the political sphere from the outside,” it gets us to the question of influence for what exactly? If your goal is to change the nature of the state, then the only real way to do that is to capture the state. This leads me to another variable: state strength. In Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt, there is a “cultural” obsession with the state as the prime mover of society. Because the state is so powerful and centralized, anyone who wants to change not just the state but also society must do so through the state. The state is the prize. But perhaps the state isn’t the prize in countries like Mali or Senegal?
Thanks for the considered response, this raises a bunch of really good points. I’ll try to respond a bit later. Two quick things: the point about the state maybe not being the prize is a good one, in part due to power and also due to resources. The other is that there actually was a functionary/middle class in these places, they were some of the key supporters of the reformist movements in their early days. Perhaps that class was only emergent rather than predominant, or perhaps it’s still in the process of formation. Hard to say for now.
Okay, apologies for the long-overdue response.
I think that in general, one of the problems with Islamism is how loose of a term it really is. We can perhaps define it narrowly as being only related to groups that form political parties and contest elections, but even within the history of the quintessential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, that definition would only work some of the time. Scholars of Islam in West Africa have at different times considered groups like the Senegalese Jama’atu Ibadou Rahmane or the neo-brotherhood Dahiratoul Mustarchidin wa Mustarchidat to be Islamist because of their political engagement or overt interventions in politics, but again, this is problematic. The aformentioned Muslim Cultural Union, for instance, engaged actively in politics without having a specific political project, although it did have specific political goals such as the enforcement of French laws guaranteeing autonomy for religious educational institutions. Does that make them Islamist? Or does it make them an educational institution with political goals? As for how they would describe themselves, as far as I’m aware they would not describe themselves as Islamist, but again there is a slippage of terms that can make this somewhat of a moot point, since different political actors use different terms at different times depending on their context and audience. For instance, up until a few years ago Mahmoud Dicko, the President of Mali’s High Islamic Council, steadfastly refused to refer to himself as Wahhabi, a term which has generally been a gloss applied to reformists and Salafis of different stripes since the colonial era. Yet starting a few years ago, he began to openly refer to himself as Wahhabi, and even said that this father was Wahhabi. So which version of his own life story are we to accept when describing him?
As for Michael Cook’s definition, this is indeed a very interesting way of framing the definition. And I agree with you that the “project” aspect is very relevant, although a broad spectrum of parties can have projects that are spiritual, moral, educational, and political all at the same time. Roman Loimeier, one of the leading historical anthropologists studying reformism in Africa, describes reform (or what others have called “Islahism”) as “change with a program,” which itself suggests a specific project. A different way of looking at the question can be from the perspective of the kind of Muslim subject that various Islamic movements seek to produce. Zachary Wright Valentine, in his provocative but also very sympathetic descriptions of the reformist Tijani movement of Sheikh Ibrahima Niasse, wrote that “reformists attempted to produce good servants of the Islamic state. The community of Ibrahima Niasse, like many other West African clerical communities, remained committed to producing good servants of God.” Yet Niasse’s leadership was in many ways very political, and he participated in the formation of international Muslim organizations and had close ties with some foreign leaders, famously including Gamal Abdul Nasser. So again, this is a very slippery definition of what is or is not political, and how politics are influenced by an Islamic heritage.
For Senegal, I did not mean to imply that Islamist parties are formally kept out of the political sphere. Islam and Islamic movements have been a crucial part of the Senegalese political and public sphere since the colonial era, and the scholars Robert Launay and Benjamin Soares wrote specifically about the emergence of an “Islamic sphere” in French West Africa, as I mentioned in our earlier exchange. One of the defining features of postcolonial Senegalese political life was indeed the embrace of Sufi orders and religious leaders (Marabouts) by the country’s first President Leopold Senghor, even though Senghor was Catholic. More recently, Islamic movements like the Moustarchidine engaged in aggressive activism and sometimes opposition to government policies in the early 1990s, and in more recent parliamentary elections avowedly Islamist parties have run, although they garnered very few seats. I think the issue is more that opposition to or discomfort with a very direct role for religion in politics (as opposed to the prominent role as advisers and counselors for marabouts and Sufi leaders) is related at least in Senegal to a respect for state institutions even among very pious Senegalese. This means that even adherents to Sufi orders or supporters of reformist movements in Senegal sometimes hesitate before the prospect of changing what are seen as core elements of the state, as has happened during repeated attempts to reform Senegal’s family code in order to bring it more in line with certain normative Muslim beliefs and strictures. But as Alex Thurston and Leonardo Villalon among others have pointed out, Muslims are extremely present in the public sphere in Senegal, and this active engagement may be one reason why Islamic activism and even contestation has not developed into a more popular “radicalization” of Muslim politics in Senegal.
Mali is a different and also very interesting case. Since the gradual political openings of the 1980s under Moussa Traoré and the overthrow of Traoré in 1991, Islamic organizations and movements have proliferated dramatically and have at various times even before the recent crisis very actively contested political outcomes without actually running political parties. This has created an environment where Muslim leaders of both Sufi and Salafi inclinations could exert tremendous moral authority on politics, such as in killing efforts to reform Mali’s family code under President Amadou Toumani Touré. Islamic organizations as well as charismatic preachers—again, not just people identified with the Salafi movement—have also contributed significantly to an Islamization of public space and social/political discourses that is readily noticeable in Mali. The current president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita even sought the formal endorsement in 2013 of the Sabati movement, an outgrowth of Mahmoud Dicko’s own power base. Yet it is important to emphasize again that these discourses are not limited to Salafis. Mali, like other countries in the sub-region, also has a strong history of reformist Sufism or reformism among ostensibly “saintly” figures not formally associated with specific Sufi orders, something drawn out in the work of Benjamin Soares. These figures include Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, the head of the spiritualist organization Ansar al-Din (not to be confused with the jihadist group of the same name), who has also labeled Malian rebels as kuffar (unbelievers) and demanded that the government make an exception to its state of emergency this year to hold public celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday.
To your question about professional classes, both Mali and Senegal do have political/professional classes, and historically some of these figures, especially those who received French educations, were in fact core constituencies for Islamic reformist movements. These constituencies also included merchants who reoriented trading networks in the region around their Salafi orientations in both the colonial and postcolonial periods. I think the issue is not necessarily with the size of these professional classes (though that may well be one factor) but instead with the matter of effectively exerting authority. It is perhaps a trope now to talk about Jean-François Bayart’s characterization of African history as one of “extraversion” seeking connection and ties outside of the continent, but Muslim leaders of varying orientations have long sought and used regional and transnational ties to bolster their own financial, political, and spiritual authority, whether in terms of using relationships with the colonial state to attract new followers, take part in international Muslim organizations, or seek education and financing from the Arab Gulf following the oil boom. Additionally, the historical challenges of modern state centralization in parts of West Africa and the weakening of state authority and reach before and after the structural adjustment reforms of the 1980s and decentralization spree of the 1990s mean that for many religious actors in Mali and Senegal, it is more advantageous to maintain a series of networks that are somewhat separate from formal power centers, even while often intervening directly to influence politics and politicians. This can in some cases be traced to longer histories of West African Muslim leaders maintaining a certain amount of skepticism toward formal political power in the aftermath of the wave of jihads that ended in the 19th century, but that story requires quite a bit more unpacking.
There’s so much going on here I’m not quite sure where to begin. I guess the first thing I’d say is that there’s less Islamism (at least in the overt sense) in a country like Senegal because there’s less need for it. There was never a conscious effort to exclude it from public life. Even if state institutions are in some sense formally secular, there was never, as far as I can tell, a forced or repressive element to that. The strength of sufi orders—which provide a sense of religious continuity—seems like a strong variable here. Where they were basically eviscerated as influential social and political forces in much of the Middle East, they retained their power in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and to a lesser extent Sudan.
Which brings me to a larger point: overt Islamism has generally been successful in countries with higher levels of educational attainment, and the “rationalist” approaches to religion which result. After all, engineers, doctors, teachers, and professors—the members of the aspiring professional classes we were discussing earlier—are the ones most likely to be at the forefront of Islamist movements. They are products of a rationalist, modern, modernist—and in some sense Westernized—discourse. Of course, higher levels of educational attainment are correlated with the existence of secular elites, and the presence of secular elites may contribute to exclusivist approaches to religion, which then highlight the need for a response, a response that often takes Islamist and consciously Islamizing forms. Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack there, but hopefully we’ve at least given readers something to think about when it comes to cross-regional comparisons that include countries like Senegal and Mali, which are all too often ignored or forgotten.