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 Djenn√© 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