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Radical Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

According to World Bank estimates, Sub-Saharan Africa, the region south of the Sahara Desert, has the world’s largest proportion of people living on less than a dollar-a-day. Situated between the Indian Ocean to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the region encompasses more than 50 countries and about 250-million Muslims, or one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population.

Traditionally home to the moderate and more tolerant Islamic Sufi sect, Sub-Saharan Africa is now grappling with pockets of radical Islamists seeking to establish strict Islamic law among some of the region’s more disenfranchised communities. Kenyan Ali Mazrui [maz-ROO-wi] of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at New York State University at Binghamton says radical Islam is spreading in two major forms. He adds, “There’s the revivalist trend, which is not necessarily politically explosive, and there’s the radicalizing trend, which can be politically explosive. The revivalists can be quite conservative and politically accommodating. You’ll find aspects of that in some African countries, including on the eastern seaboard. But the radicalizing tendency which is more recent is definitely politically ominous in some respects, although the causes of it have to be sought beyond the borders of the African continent.”

Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya are among the Sub-Saharan countries where people are increasingly leaning toward radicalism. Nigeria, home to some 60-million Muslims, has already seen Islamic law adopted across its northern states, often contributing to religious tensions and violence. But many analysts note that it will be very difficult for more radical elements to convert traditionally moderate Sub-Saharan societies on a large scale. Moreover, Ricardo Rene Laremont of New York State University at Binghamton points out that radical Islamic elements have not had an opportunity to rule in many Sub-Saharan countries.  He goes on to say, “They are there operating in the most marginalized elements of society, saying that they are providing an alternative to states and countries that don’t work. And because they’re providing alternatives and because their constituency are those people 15-25 [years old] who are marginalized, they then have a political constituency that they can mobilize.”

Most analysts agree that poverty, corruption and political alienation are contributing to the spread of radicalism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some blame 19th century European colonialism for remapping ethnic territories, marginalizing Muslims and, in some cases, leaving a legacy of inter-communal strife. They point out that Muslims in countries historically dominated by Christians, such as Ethiopia and Ivory Coast, do not wield political power relative to their large numbers.  Some experts blame Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya for financing and exporting intolerant brands of Islam to Africa. But George Washington University’s David Shinn, a former U-S Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, says it would be wrong to attribute this phenomenon to any one reason or country.  He adds, “I think there are many reasons, and the reasons often vary from one region to another. I think it’s very important to understand what these causes are, and to try to get to the bottom of them. I have a suspicion that some of the problems that exist in Sub-Saharan Africa are rather dissimilar than those that exist, say in the Middle East and South Asia.”

Ambassador Shinn, who served both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and ’90s adds that social inequality, alienation and isolation of certain groups on religious or ethnic grounds warrant more attention in some Sub-Saharan countries.  He says,  “Some of these i ssues have to be looked at with greater care because these are the feeding grounds or the parts of Africa where it’s easier for more committed extremists from outside the region to move through to gain local support and assistance, even though the local people in those cases are not the ones who are providing most of the foot-soldiers for extremism and terrorism.”

Many analysts cite the bombing of the U-S embassy in Kenya in 1998 as an example of the type of threats posed by radicals moving into the region from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Because of this relative ease of movement, some experts say the West needs to confront this phenomenon more urgently. David McCormack of the Center for Security Policy in Washington warns that radical elements endanger the moderate, constructive Islamic forces in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, and pose a threat to American interests.  He says,  “The United States really has to start doing more to address these threats. They need to include Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the international security framework and not merely treat it as a dumping ground for humanitarian aid.”

But other analysts note that the United States has enhanced its security presence in Africa to deal with extremism and terrorism, and recently increased economic assistance to the continent. Nevertheless, most analysts agree that more needs to be done. Among them is political scientist Ali Mazrui of Binghamton University, who says the radicalization of Sub-Saharan Africa is inexorably tied to the Middle East.  He adds, “The West has to remember that because eastern Africa is so close to the Middle East, it has to address Middle Eastern problems themselves. The two major ones that are generating passion are, of course, the Palestinian- Israeli issue and what is regarded as an imperial role by the United States in both Africa and the Middle East. So those have to be addressed external to Africa if we are to make sure that Africa itself doesn’t go up in flames.”

With Africa on its way to becoming the first Muslim continent, most analysts agree that the  West needs to do more to stem the tide of radicalism, by increasing assistance to moderate Muslims, enhancing cultural exchanges and encouraging the study and understanding of Islam in western universities.

This program was brodcast as part of VOA's Focus series.  To hear more Focus stories, please click here.

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