NIGER BETWEEN THE SECULAR STATE AND THE ISLAMIST DRIFT
1. Niger, although inhabited by a population that is 95% Muslim, has had a secular State and has avoided Islamic extremism thus far. From 1960 to 1974, in the years of the first Republic, under the umbrella of the unique party PPN-RDA (Progressive Nigerien Party – Rassemblement Democratique Africain) of Hammani Diori, Niger began exchanges with Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. The first “Islamic Cultural Association of Niger” (ACIN) was founded with the goal of controlling the Marabuts and channeling the religiousness of the local population.
The ACIN operated through a complex network of regional and local seats without modifying the existing the religious structure (mostly Sunni from the Malikite school or connected to the confraternities: Khalwatiyya, Sanoussiyya, Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya), all the while reinforcing the notables of the time.
We've already discussed the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya (when speaking of Senegal); here follows some data about the Malikite school and the other confraternities mentioned above:
- The Malikite school: it is an ancient theological Muslim Sunni school of jurisprudence. It is widely diffused in western Africa; it takes its name from its founder Malik ibn Anas and is characterized by its effort to adapt to the peculiarities of the African context;
- Khalwatiyya: from Arabic “Khuluwu”, which means to “take refuge in a narrow space in order to meditate and pray”. The confraternity is diffused especially in the north of Niger, in the village of Tabelot and on the Bagzane mountains;
- Sanoussiyya: this confraternity takes its name from its founder Muhammad As-Sanoussi, a Maghrebin that would have founded the confraternity in Arabia to then spread its word in Libya. Since the XIX century the confraternity became especially diffused in the regions of the Air, in the north of Niger, on Lake Chad and in the Fezzan (in Libya). It has fought Italian and French colonialism with great dedication; after causing an uprising in 1917 in Niger, the confraternity was smashed by colonial power, losing many of its members to the Tijaniyya.
The ACIN Association has obtained a good number of scholarships from Arab countries, through which it sent its students across the Maghreb. It has organized pilgrimages to the Mecca until 1974, when the military regime of Kountche' (1974-1988) created a new “Islamic Nigerien Association” (AIN). The AIN was founded to promote the teachings of Islamic science and to license Marabuts with an authorization to preach, in order to marginalize those that were overzealous or not in line with the regime. The AIN was in the midst of every religious debate and kept close relationships with the Arab countries. In 1978 Niger hosted the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OCI) and founded the Islamic University of Say, with teachings in Arabic.
With the advent of democracy in 1990, the parties favored the proliferation of associations: 44 associations and 132 antennae spread over the entire territory. These went from the apolitical ones and the feminist ones to those founded by the heads of the confraternities. They were generally dedicated to the re-claiming of the Islamic religious identity endangered by the rampant secularization of society. Such secularization was perceived as anti-Islamic, especially regarding the rights of women (ex. “egalitarian division” of the inheritance among male and female heirs. The Islamic right says that women only inherit half of what their male siblings are entitled to). In short, there begins a critical process of re-Islamization and of reaffirmation of Islam as the basis for the public morale.
In the year 2000, as the associations are cajoled by the central state, the public critique against them begins to be widespread. Among the Tuareg, the term “Islamik”, which means an association that speaks in the name of Islam while conniving with the government, becomes widely used (Islamik is the religious version of “laik”, which means secular). The members of the associations are sent across the country to spread the government's political line. They do so by controlling births and by applying rules based on religious morality. They also strongly oppose the institution of a “western-styled feminism” that is thought to be in contrast with the spirit of the Koran and of the Hadith.
The Islamic drift also caused a loss of consensus on the part of the ruling elites in Niger. These social classes, which used to be secular (they were once supported by the francophone elites that were formed in public secular schools), are presently seduced by the religious moral as a way to preserve their power.
Through seminars, lectures, conferences, and other initiatives financed by rich Arab merchants, these elites are now embracing a new form of Islam:
- the Islamic associations, together with the schools (madrassa) have created new forms of aggregation and social visibility, such as study groups where women, students and officers meet to discuss Islam;
- in the other social classes, like among the elites, the re-Islamization of daily practices is just as strong. In the urban centers there is a widespread diffusion of Islamic DVD's and CD's and of written works that are shown in simplified televised or radio-phonic formats;
- among the merchants there grows the phenomenon of religious patronage, which goes to finance the mosques, Islamic music stores, televised and radio lectures that are the basis for Islamic proselytism. All of these are instruments to manipulate the public opinion;
- the marketplace has also been changed by the lectures, poetry and Islamic chants that are heard coming of the music stores (whereas in the past the air was filled with Malian or Congolese tunes that can now be heard in nightclubs and pubs); the DVD's teach children how to recite prayers and women how to wear a hijab.
2. In 1990 a new reformist current, of Nigerian origin, spread through Niger. It is called Izala, from the Arabic “izalatul bid'a wa iqamat al-sunna” (to eradicate innovation in order to let the prophetic tradition triumph). The adepts are called Ahl al-sunna (“those of the sunna”), yan Izala or yan-Wahabia (wahabites).
The Izala movement was born in Niger in 1987 from the successor of Seyni Kountche', Ali Saibou. The movement was structured during the transitional period (1990-1993) and in January of 1993 the association “Adin-Islam” was founded. The association's goal was to purify the practice of Islam in Niger from innovation (bid'a) and from negative forms of association (shirk) as practiced by the confraternities, such as the Tijaniyya.
The members of Izala oppose:
- the cult of saints and their graves;
- the exaltation of the cult of the prophet (especially the assiduous reading of poems in his honor and the practice of “maraboutage”, such as wearing amulets that associate koranic verses with other ingredients). The Izala went so far as to call the members of the confraternities “kafr” (infidels), to question their rituals (baptisms and weddings) and to stigmatize the excessively reverential behavior of the students with regards to their teachers.
The Tijaniyya's response was just as harsh: the Izala was defined a heretic association paid by the Wahabites. There also followed episodes of violence:
- in 1994 in Maradi, concrete tombstones and graves were removed and ruined (according to the Izalas, graves should not be made of concrete and should be devoid of decorations);
- once again in Maradi, a Marabut lectured on the radio in favor of the State's family code; the Izalas responded by attacking the radio station and causing material damages;
- in the year 2005, in Tillaberi, a clash against Islamic extremists caused the Izalas to be chased from the village; their wives were tortured.
The Izalas do not believe in the mediation between God and men. The confraternities, on the other hand, assign such task to the spiritual powers of their cheikh.
The Izalas think that the practice of wasifa (gathering of the tijanists around a white cloth to celebrate the birth of the prophet) is a corrupt practice.
The Izalas also attempted to stop the celebration of the Moloud because they believe that it incites sinful conducts.
Finally, the Izalas have taken their distance from the Boko Aram movement, founded in Nigeria by a Izala group.
There are also other Islamic reformist groups on the Nigerien scene:
- the Kalo-Kato movement, which only recognizes the Koran and not the Sunna;
- the Goungouni, which promotes the strict application of the shari'a under the guide of their leader Mano Ibrahim.
3. Unlike Senegal, the future of Niger appears quite vulnerable; it could be the first country after Mali to “catch fire” under the blows of the nebula-like groups with ties to “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQMI). Indications of this are quite visible:
- there are too many “beards” around lately (they could be “dormant Islamic cells”);
- even the peaceful herders peul/bororo of Niger have traveled to Mali to join the ranks of the “MUJAO” (the Movement for the uniqueness of Jihad in western Africa);
- in the case of an invasion Niger, unlike Mali, would have to defend itself against well-armed forces that outnumber them.
If there were an invasion, any further French military operations in the region (in the advent of a worsening of the situation in Niger) would be highly unlikely. This because of the already “muscular” presence of the French in its former colonies and nearby regions.
The so-called “Arab Spring” on Libyan soil (with the annexed military support in terms of air strikes, missiles and special teams) is a French trick, the motivations of which lie in the following considerations:
- the urgency of the then-president Nicolas Sarkozy to prevent losing consensus to the extreme right of Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean Marie) before the presidential elections of 2012 (where he was defeated by the socialist candidate Francois Hollande);
- the aspiration of replacing Italy – through the toppling of the Libyan regime – in Italy's “backyard” (considering the traditionally preferential relationship between Italy and Khadafi) and to “cash in” in political, economic and energetic terms;
- the will to re-affirm French presence in northern Africa, even (especially) against their ally, the US, which was literally dragged into the Libyan adventure by the neck; such a complex operation cannot be improvised in just a few weeks, it is part of a strategic long-range program. Here's how we know this:
- the French military intervention to save the government of Bamako (Mali) against the advancing Islamic militants was in a perfect neo-colonial style (or rather “colonial”, since the army was used). The offensive was followed by statements by Hollande saying that France would stay in Mali until the stabilization of the situation (those who speak the language of politics know what this means... especially considering that the political situation in Mali was abnormal even before the jihadist attack).
French bombs in Libya
- the failed attempts by the French special troops to free hostages (including the counter-espionage agent in Somalia, which ended in the death of the hostage and of two special agents);
- the consistent and “active” French military presence in Ivory Coast, which began in 2002 and which counts over 500 men on the ground, not to mention the 2000 stationed in Central Africa (by the way, as the world watched in stupor the US attack against Iraq in 2003, French troops were opening fire against the crowd at the airport in Abidjan).
In such a political-military context, a further military intervention by France in Niger would raise worries among the international community and could tread on some “very sensible feet”, especially in Washington, which is paying the full price for the novel French expansion in Africa. One thing is to send a group of paratroopers on a special mission in some “banana republic”, another is to have a mechanized division driving through western Africa.
Yet back to the political-religious aspect of the whole story, one could safely say that the imposition of western secularism in the Islamic world – as in all the rest of the developing world – has triggered extremist and violent reactions which, cunningly used by leaders that govern through religion, have produced the so-called “jihadism”.
The imposition of western cultural models (one could call it “globalization”) is part of a strategy called “soft power”. It is a very efficient strategy but also one that requires a very delicate application: if one is not careful, the reaction to the “cultural invasion” will not be quite as soft as the exerted power.
Presently, the “enemy” is able to use the same instruments of cultural penetration adopted by the West against the West itself: we are speaking of high-technology, not just the television and the radio. Social networks and all the other forms of computer data exchange, although highly sophisticated, can be extraordinarily efficient in spreading a “medieval” message. The more technological the instrument, the easier it is to receive such message.
If we compare the spread of jihadist extremism to an epidemic, we could argue that the medicine should not be sought among the instruments that would reinforce the virus by making it “mutate” (the Salafites use the web to spread the most traditional Islam). Despite secular western “mass vaccines”, with or without a side order of “democracy”, the virus keeps growing strong. After all, when there is an epidemic, the pharmaceutical firms are eager to profit from it by selling their vaccine...
If we want to help Islam and ourselves against the spread of this disease we must strengthen its immune system. Religious Islam (and not political-radical Islam) has within it the antibodies to fight the virus; and the confraternities of western Africa are there to prove it. Yet it is the responsibility (and the interest of) the West that this epidemic not turn into a pandemic.