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Lessons from Africa’s History of Jihad

Read Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos' policy paper, "Jihad in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenging the Narratives of the War on Terror."

By Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos

For many in a Western audience, the prominence of groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab represent a disturbing rise in jihadist activity in Africa. However, understanding the jihadist movements of Sahelian Africa requires moving beyond easy paradigms of clash of civilizations or Christian persecution and examining the history of Islam and jihad in the region. What one finds when taking this historical perspective is that insurgencies under the banner of the Quran have long been active in this region and cannot be categorized as outdated and backward forms of resistance to change. Quite the opposite, the “small” jihad, the jihad of holy war, has been a factor of innovation, state building, and adjustment to modernity.

Paradoxically, the more global the efforts to renew the Muslim faith have been, the more they have led to fragmentation. Sahelian jihads should not be seen as simple revolts imported from the Arab world. In practice, they sought their legitimacy from local historical and theological references—with one key exception being Somalia’s al-Shabab, who, because of their geographical proximity to the Red Sea, are more directly influenced by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.

Rather than being an ideology imported from Arab countries then, the discourses of jihadist groups in the West African Sahel are rooted in local, and victorious models of Islamic revival through war. The Malian Murabitun (“Sentinels”) that stemmed from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), explicitly reference the Almoravid dynasty that ruled over Morocco and the Sahara in the 11th century. And though made up largely of ethnic Kanuris (historically linked to the former Borno Sultanate in North-East Nigeria), the followers of Boko Haram will often reference the Fulani jihad of the 19th century Sokoto Caliphate, founded by Usman Dan Fodio in Hausaland. Such references show the ambiguity of jihads, which, while calling for a strict enforcement of Sharia, discipline, and Islamic order, have been a force for both state building and social change and the destruction and rejection of Western post-colonial modernity.

In Nigeria, for example, the figure of Usman Dan Fodio has been invoked by both insurgent groups and political parties committed to secular, parliamentary democracy. At independence in 1960, the Northern Elements Progressive Union was a progressive movement, often perceived as socialist. During political gatherings strategically organized during Quran exegesis sessions (tafsir), it nonetheless called for a jihad directed against the Hausa-Fulani aristocracy, vilifying it as having betrayed the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the Sokoto Caliphate by allying itself with the British colonizing power. Meanwhile, the Northern People’s Congress and its successor in power during the Second Republic (1979-1983) accused their opponents of being anti-Islamic and thus hostile to Usman Dan Fodio’s legacy. The use of this history is just as ambiguous today. For example, the Shiites of Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, largely inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, mobilized the figure of Usman Dan Fodio to try to attract the Sunnis of the largest Sufi brotherhoods of Northern Nigeria, the Qadiriyya and the Tijanniya.

In short, the jihad of Usman dan Fodio has been used loosely and largely as a reference for anyone demanding the establishment of an ideal Islamic society and anyone seeking secular good governance in a Muslim society. His name and his writings have been quoted by both political parties in power and those in opposition, by both Sufi and Salafist sheiks, and by both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups.

Such an ideological patchwork can be extremely confusing for the outside observer. It does, however, demonstrate that sub-Saharan African Muslims draw their legitimacy from local doctrinal and historical resources, regardless of whether they are seeking democracy or the establishment of theocracy.

Understanding the history of sub-Saharan Islam is thus crucial for those wishing to understand the responses to changes taking place today–as it sets the social and political contexts of rebellions breaking out under the banner of the Quran and prevents the reduction of their dynamic to one of theological squabbling between Muslim clerics.

A historical reading of Islamist rebellions helps to deconstruct media representations of jihad and place the Western story of an unprecedented world-wide terrorist threat into perspective. The first lesson to draw is that jihadist phenomena are by no means new in sub-Saharan Africa. Rather, the insurgents of yesterday have become the nobility of today, clinging on the prerogatives of the establishment. That the heirs to 19th century jihads have been integrated into the state’s structures demonstrates the potential of negotiation and compromise as an alternative to repression.

History also reminds us that the resurgence of jihadism cannot simply be attributed to recent globalization. Such an explanation would neglect the very old contact points between the Sahel and the Arab world. In the 19th century, the spread of jihadist ideas already had a transcontinental dimension and was even able to reach South America through the transatlantic slave trade.

Another key lesson derived from history is that a “clash of civilizations” view of African jihad is largely incorrect. Most of the current fighting happens in regions Islamized a long time ago and a large majority of the victims of jihadist violence are themselves Muslim. This is because Sahelian jihadist groups first and foremost express a conflict in values between different Islamic perspectives. As a result, they do not generally attempt to convert Christians but instead look to re-Islamize those who they perceive as “bad” Muslims by threatening them with expulsion from the community of believers and with excommunication (takfir).  

Finally, history shows that over last century, it is in fact Christianity that has spread though Africa at an impressive speed, while the proportion of Muslims remained roughly the same. However, with Nigeria projected to be one of the largest Muslim countries on the planet—alongside Indonesia, Pakistan, and India—by the end of the 21st century, it is demographics, not proselytization or holy war, that will shift the center of gravity of a religion that is often associated solely with the Arab world.

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Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos is the director of research at the Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement, Paris; research associate at the Université Paris 8; associate fellow, Africa Programme at Chatham House in London; and a PRIO Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

[Photo courtesy of Magharebia]

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