Saturday, 27 April 2013

Ignored and neglected: The Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa

Most attention for developments in the Muslim world, political, intellectual, or otherwise, focuses primarily on the Middle East and to some extent also South Asia. Geographically peripheral areas such as Southeast Asia, but even more so, sub-Saharan Africa, are generally neglected in both media and scholarship. The fact that Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation state in the world, and that Nigeria's Muslims number close to 90 million (more than the entire populations of, say, Iran, Turkey, or Egypt) is often ignored.

When areas such as West Africa do  receive coverage it is generally due to political crises or acute security concerns emerging from the region which are thought to have an effect on developments elsewhere. Seldom is there any attention for the local situation in its own right or a genuine interest in the region's place within the Muslim world or in its historical contributions to Islamic civilization. Africans are seen as 'marginal' Muslims.

In view of  recent events in Mali there has at least been some awareness of the destruction of its indigenous Islamic legacy in the course of clashes between locals, outside Islamic activists, and intervening foreign armed forces. However, so far this had hardly gone beyond indignation over the threats to UNESCO heritage sites such as the town of Djenné and it Great Mosque. Some cursory mention was also made of the equally endangered manuscript collections of Timbuktu. Such concerns demonstrate that there is an inkling of the role of Africa in shaping Muslim culture.

But that is all about the past, present-day Muslims in countries like Mali and its neighbours still face marginalization. However, some critical voices among its intellectuals do speak about the discrimination they face from their co-religionists, often in the guise of bringing 'true Islam' to Africa.

Bakary Sambe
This issue was addressed by the Senegalese intellectual Bakary Sambe. Trained in Lyon as an Arabist, Africanist and political scientist, he specializes in trans-regional Muslim relations, in particular between the Arab world and Africa. He has taught in France and Senegal, and has held research associations with the European Foundation for Democracy and the Aga Khan University in London.

Organisations that are financed by Arab nations such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are attempting what could be described as an "Islamisation" of our region; they want to bring their idea of "true Islam" to sub-Saharan Africa. This is pure ideology motivated by an Arab paternalism that I vehemently oppose. The attempt to "Arabise" us is based on a total denial of our culture as African Muslims.
His criticism is not only directed at the oil-rich Gulf States, but also individuals such as Tariq Ramadan, who  -- although controversial in his own right -- is nevertheless regarded as an 'acceptable face of Islam'. But according to Sambe, his attitudes still reflect a kind of paternalism towards non-Arab Muslims which he considers 'imperialist'.

At the same time, he sees little emancipatory or redeeming value in promoting Islam Noir or 'Black Islam':
This term was introduced during the colonial era and sought to infantilise us, the African people. Allegedly, we were so emotional because we were not as spiritually mature as the Arabs, who were consequently viewed as more dangerous. France has always tried to establish a barrier between the Maghreb and the sub-Saharan region, to prevent any intellectual exchange from taking place.
Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu
 He finds its ironic that now, at the beginning of the 21th century, Gulf Arabs come to 'Islamize' West-Africa's Muslims, while in the 15th century, when large parts of the Arabian Peninsula had reverted to being a cultural backwater, the scholars in Timbuktu were producing their treasured manuscripts....

Sambe thinks it is high time for African Muslims to shake off their inferiority complex and work redeveloping their own religious and intellectual traditions. Only this way Muslims can interact on par which each other.

Read the whole article here

Friday, 26 April 2013

Defending democracy and secularism: Ethiopia's Muslim civil rights movement

The Open Democracy website covers democratization efforts, and its discontents, across the world. It just posted an article on a country that is rarely mentioned in current affairs on the Muslim world: Ethiopia, where a Muslim civil rights movement has recently sprung up in defence of democracy and: 
has so far had some spectacular implications for the development of democracy and democratic political culture in the country. It has affected its culture as well as its institutional dynamics.
Author Alemu Tafesse contends that in the face of severe constrains on NGO activism, the virtual absence of a free press, tightly-controlled religions organizations, and professional organizations operating in cahoots with the government, Muslim activists are defying the country's repressive regime led by the janus-faced Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which sends out a barrage of 'legal speak' about the need for safeguarding the rule of law, whilst simultaneously curtailing citizens rights through what is an effect an authoritarian one-party state.

The regime has tried to manipulate the Muslim segment of the population by orchestrating tightly controlled elections for a new Islamic Supreme Council whose loyalty the government can count on. But since late 2011 it is confronted by newly emerging protest movement of Muslims who are campaigning for the restoration of citizens rights, establishing a 17-person committee to coordinate its actions, in January 2012  However, they face an uphill battle as becomes clear from the Human Rights Watch report on unfair trial of twenty-nine of its activists, including no less than 9 members of the committee, leading journalists and NGO activists.

Rather than advocating religious communitarian interests, they are challenging a formidable adversary with a very different set of demands: 
The movement has consistently demanded the protection of democratic and constitutional rights, nothing more or less. It has couched its demands in the most legitimate manner, and has staged perfectly non-violent rallies. It has never, on the one hand, asked for, or worked towards, the realization of religious interests beyond or independent of the constitutional framework, nor, on the other hand, has it demanded, or sought, the displacement of that framework by a new secular system. This is very significant for the development of an inclusive and non-violent democratic culture in Ethiopia.
Here we see a phenomenon that seems almost counter-intuitive, not to say, paradoxical: Muslim citizens criticizing a government's anti-secular policies. Thus Ethiopia's Muslim-led civil rights movement stands in marked contrast to other Muslim organizations which tend to focus on the interests of their co-religionists. In this case, Muslims appear to be defending an 'Ethiopian agenda' that is inclusivist:
By its very nature, recent Muslim activism has been trans-ethnic and trans-regional, and hence it has offered a glimpse of a pan-Ethiopian trait (despite the obvious limitation of its being religion-based). But it has also been “Ethiopia-centered” in the sense that its discourse, its actors, its visions etc have been Ethiopian, not international or regional. The government’s accusations notwithstanding, there has not been any trace of foreign involvement in this struggle.
Read the full article by clicking here

Saturday, 20 April 2013

An intellectual History of the Contemporary Muslim World

An impressionist and anecdotal talk by yours truly about contemporary thinking in the Muslim World at Mahfil Ali Shi'a Ithna'ashari Community in Middlesex (SICM).

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A critical Muslim view from Indonesia on democracy, state and religion

Herdi Sahrasad
The Jakarta Post carried an interesting article  on the delicate relation between state and religion in Indonesia. It was co-authored by American political scientist Blake Respini and the Indonesian journalist and academic Herdi Sahrasad, a lecturer at Paramadina University and associate director of the Center for Islam and State Studies.

Blake Respini
It challenges received views on the compatibility between support for a democratic political system and holding on to religiously-inspired -- often conservative -- social values. Many Muslim organizations in Indonesia advocate a combination of the two: 
It is easy to mistake support for a conservative moral law as support for Islamism when it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values.[..] these civic organizations may be as important to the future of Indonesia’s democracy as is the curtailment of extremists.[...] 
From an outsider (Western) perspective this often leads to confusion, but, as the authors point out, in the Indonesian context: 
a critical component of Indonesia’s democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. [...] most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs even if they do not support the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to sharia is often blurred.
 The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects that Indonesia continues to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy.

Consequently, the overeasy binaries projected in most of the media coverage on the Muslim world as well as due to the 'securitization' of the academic study of Islam, create a simplistic and misleading image -- certainly where it comes to Indonesia: 
political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognize this so that they can find common ground
 This reality imposes a delicate balancing act on both states and their citizens:
 All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes, musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves. However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the imbedded images that a country’s inhabitants hold of themselves is that of their national identity. 

In the Indonesian case it meant finding a meaningful combination between the Muslim identity of its majority population, connecting it with co-religionists elsewhere, and their belonging to Indonesia, forcing them to forge bonds with non-Muslim fellow countrymen (and women).

To read the article in full, click here. For a slightly different version, highlighting some other aspects, click here.