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African Muslims In The Islamic World

Ali Bahati Juma is a scholar at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.
Ali Bahati Juma is a scholar at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

by Ali B. Juma-Nigeria has been convulsed by religious violence triggered by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper months ago. The violence began in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri during a protest by Muslims against the cartoons, with the Christian Association of Nigeria reporting at least 50 Christians killed. Reprisals were swift, and at least 50 Muslims were killed in three days of violence in the southeastern (predominantly Christian) cities of Onitsha and Enugu.
The Nigerian protests against the cartoons (so far the most violent in Africa) raise the question: what is the role and position of African Muslims (or more accurately, sub-Saharan African Muslims) in the “Islamic World”? When people in the rest of the world use the term “Islamic World” do they include in it sub-Saharan African Muslims, or do they have in mind only the Muslims of the Middle East and Asia?
Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa do not share many characteristics with Muslims in other parts of the world, especially those of the Arab world. Sub-Saharan African Muslims are less assertive, and they face considerably more difficulties in their attempts to articulate their rights and establish their presence in their respective states and regions.
Part of the difficulty arises from the perpetual African dilemma of identity. Africa has been described as a continent having a triple heritage, and the African Muslim, too, has a split personality. He must decide whether he is a Muslim first, then a member of his tribe, say, Hausa, and then of his nation, say, Nigeria. Even though Muslim practice is strong in Africa, there is widespread incorporation of traditional African rituals in ceremonies like weddings and funerals. For example, among the Luhya in Western Kenya, it is not uncommon for Muslims to slaughter animals during funerals, even though, strictly speaking, there is no such provision in Islam.
Muslims in many sub-Saharan African states are also minorities. They do not form a formidable presence, as in Nigeria, where some Muslim-majority states in the north have even implemented Sharia Law, making them more or less Islamic states. Nevertheless, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is a secular state, as are almost all sub-Saharan African states.
The colonial legacy also helps account for the relatively docile nature of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. The colonial powers’ arbitrary demarcation of borders lumped together in one state diverse ethnic groups which may have been historical antagonists. Colonial political economy also concentrated “development” in resource-rich areas, while neglecting resource-poor regions and their populations, which in many cases were Muslim.
Thus we see a relatively poor Hausa-Muslim majority population in northern Nigeria and a relatively rich Ibo-Christian majority population in oil-rich southeastern Nigeria; a relatively rich Christian majority population in central Kenya and a relatively poor Muslim majority population on the coast and in the northeastern provinces; and so on. As political power tends to polarize around economic power, sub-Saharan African Muslims have been under-represented in these mostly centralized political systems.
Moreover, Muslims in these mostly patron-client states have been forced to identify more with atomistic/parochial ethnic nationalism in order to enjoy the “fruits of independence” and thus acquire whatever political representation they have. This has led to a related problem in countries bordering the Indian Ocean: disunity between coastal, more Arabized Muslims and the non-Arabized Muslims of the interior. It is no exaggeration to argue that the more Arabized African Muslims along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts (including the island of Zanzibar) consider themselves “more Muslim” than the less Arabized Muslims inland.
Muslim political participation in sub-Saharan Africa has thus been extremely limited. Political Islam is an almost unknown phenomenon in this region (the Islamic Party of Kenya was never registered, for example), and Muslim organizations have mostly focused on welfare and rights.
However, Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, like most Muslims around the world, exhibit an “us versus them” mentality. When Muslims form a minority, they have tended to co-exist peacefully with other religions, but where their populations are substantial (as in Nigeria), they tend to assert themselves. Whatever ethnic and other divisions are at stake, the “us versus them” sentiment has played a large role in fomenting religious conflict in Nigeria.
Nevertheless, Nigeria (and perhaps Zanzibar) remains an exception in Islamic assertiveness in sub-Saharan Africa, which is why the idea of an active “Islamic World” includes only a relatively limited segment of sub-Saharan African Muslims. Whether they like it or not, the majority of sub-Saharan African Muslims are represented by states that are mostly secular, Christian, or dominated by other religions.

Copyright: Project Syndicate 2006 – African Muslims In The Islamic World

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