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Africans Have Varying Views Toward US Anti-Terrorism Funding - 2003-07-10

President Bush, who is on a tour of Africa, has said that poverty and failed states on the continent could be dangerous breeding grounds for terrorism. As a result, the United States has poured millions of dollars into anti-terrorism programs in sub-Saharan Africa. But some researchers say in some areas the effort is adding to anti-U.S. feeling.

The U.S. anti-terrorism effort in Africa intensified after the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. But they go back much farther, at least to the time of the bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The United States has negotiated agreements for military cooperation with several African governments, and provides anti-terrorism funding to many more. President Bush has made it clear that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam or against Africans in general, but rather against extremists who pose a danger to Africa as much as they do to the West.

But many Africans do not see it that way.

Researcher on Islamic thought in Africa, David Gutelius, of Stanford University in California, says many governments have used the anti-terrorism money to limit legitimate dissent. He says this has had a negative impact in many countries with large Muslim populations, and Islam-based political oppositions.

"The result has been that many of these opposition groups who were formerly not interested in violence at all are increasingly limited in their options," he said. "They feel that they have very little opportunity to participate in elections, in their local governments and especially at the national level. What this is doing is leading to a sea-change in the leadership of many Islamic associations and organizations across the continent at about the same time. This is really the first time this sort of change has happened so drastically."

Mr. Gutelius says the new leadership of Islamic organizations in sub-Saharan Africa is often young and educated in the Arab countries of North Africa.

With the help of local clerics, they often pressure Muslim populations to be more observant of Islamic laws and traditions.

Africa's Islamic organizations also receive funding from Middle Eastern organizations to build schools, mosques and hospitals in impoverished areas.

At the University of Yaounde, in Cameroon, Islamic Studies Professor Gilbert Taguem Fah says it is a grass-roots level movement that is gaining momentum. He has observed the trend in Muslim-dominated areas of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, and among university students in big cities elsewhere.

"They are not taking directly part in the political life in terms of creating political parties or so on but they give speeches, they are preaching, there are conferences, debates are organized, books are distributed," he said. "I think they are developing a state of consciousness at the population level so that in the long run I am quite sure they will expand themselves and be a kind of a starting block for a kind of political fight or something like that."

Mr. Fah says that politically these groups often position themselves as socially conservative, attached to African traditions and opposed to what they view as the invasion of a western way of life.

Many of them consider democracy part of that bad western influence, saying it is being used to keep the current elites in power rather than to really reflect the will of the people.

In addition, with the arrival of Arab satellite television in many sub-Saharan countries, Arabic-speaking Africans have also grown increasingly opposed to U.S. policy in the Middle East. This has helped spark growing discontent with the United States. A recent survey found that the proportion of Nigerian Muslims who view the United States favorably fell from more than 70 percent to less than 40 percent last year.

Researcher David Gutelius at Stanford University warns that the United States needs to recognize these trends, and respond now, or possibly face serious consequences.

"I feel that if we don't understand what's happening at sort of the grassroots level we're going to be surprised we're going to find that not only have our policies been responsible for the possible break-up of several African nations or the kind of low level battles that have plagued Algeria for the past 10 years," he said. "We're going to see this sort of trend across Africa especially in areas where Muslims have been most repressed by non-Muslim or secular governments. There's a real chance of this happening."

Analysts say Islamic radicalism is on the rise in Muslim-populated areas of sub-Saharan Africa, and political opposition to U.S.backed governments is also growing and becoming better-organized. They warn that U.S. policy-makers need to make sure they do not fuel that trend as they pursue the war on terrorism.