The Onward March of Islamism in Africa

On Christmas Eve 2012, attacks on two Nigerian churches resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people. Brutal as the attacks may have been, they were not necessarily surprising as attacks by militant Islamist groups against Christians in Nigeria have become all too common. The Christmas attack is one of many since 2010. More than 30 people died in 2011 on Christmas Day in a wave of attacks in the region, blamed on the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Indeed, al-Qaeda affiliated militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have become more active not only in Nigeria but in other African countries as well. Some of the other main groups include Ansar Dine in Mali and al-Shabab in Somalia. 

As of January 2012, Boko Haram had killed close to 1,000 people. One year on and many attacks later, the death toll is well over 1,000. Although it has targeted a wide range of people, Boko Haram is especially known for attacking Christians during religious gatherings. This is in part due to the fact that many international news agencies tend to give more coverage to Boko Haram when it targets Christians as opposed to other groups. Ansar Dine has taken over large areas of Mali, most notably Timbuktu, and imposed sharia law. Al-Shabab has caused devastation in Somalia and has been responsible for attacks in Kenya and Uganda.

Varied as these groups and their individual causes may be, they have some things in common. They all demonstrate a lack of respect for human life. They all claim to be working for Allah, yet they so easily destroy the lives of people who, from their perspectives, are creations of Allah. They respect only the lives of those who follow Islam in the way they deem correct. So if you do not hold the same religious beliefs as they do or are not 'Muslim enough', your life means nothing. They will target you. The more people who are injured or killed, the better it is for Islamists. This instils fear in people and puts immense pressure on governments and any other group they believe are in the way of them achieving their goals. 

Islamist groups such as Boko Haram would argue that their mission is a moral one. But there is no morality in their mission or their methods. No amount of destruction and devastation is too great. Many people have lost their lives or someone close to them, livelihoods have been lost, freedom of choice and freedom of expression are not permitted, historically and culturally significant sites like those in Timbuktu have been destroyed, and the economies of targeted areas have been negatively affected. But this is all perfectly acceptable as it only helps in achieving their goals.

The actions of Islamist groups in Africa and other parts of the world are undoubtedly wrong, but so too is the perception that their actions are un-Islamic. Words such as ‘extremist’, ‘Islamic terrorist’ and ‘Islamist’ are commonly used to distinguish groups such as Ansar Dine from mainstream Muslims. This implies that these groups are not following Islam but have, in a sense, created their own religion – a corruption of Islam or a version that is much too harsh. 

The distinction is useful, but in many instances it is those who are deemed as ‘extremists’ that follow the tenets of Islam more closely that mainstream Muslims. After the Islamic group MUJAO put restrictions on music in Gao, one reporter in an arts publication describes the actions taken by militiamen to enforce the restriction in the “most literal and brutal Sharia jurisdiction in the world today”. But the problem here is not just MUJAO, or Ansar Dine or Boko Haram. The problem here is Islam itself. MUJAO and similar groups must be condemned for the way they impose and enforce literal interpretations of Sharia law. But the key word here is ‘literal’. The bigger issue is that militant groups’ actions are mandated by Islamic texts. Like so many, the author condemns the people who belong to the religion and follow it strictly, but he does not condemn the religion that mandates their actions. Perhaps it is the desire to come across as politically correct and the fear of being labeled Islamophobic that leads people to condemn Islamist groups but stop short of condemning Islam.

The word Islam means ‘submission’ and a Muslim is someone who has submitted fully to God. In that sense, the so-called moderate Muslims do not fully demonstrate what it really is to be a Muslim as they are not fully submitting themselves to God. It is the extremist groups that follow traditional Islam. Moderates follow a 'diluted' form of Islam. The conditions in areas where Sharia is imposed are often brutal and inhumane; freedom of expression is no longer allowed and life is particularly difficult for women. This is not because of doctrines invented by al Qaeda or their affiliates in Africa. This is the result of following Islamic doctrine literally.

Still, over a billion people cling to Islam and the number of adherents is growing. Whether it be amputation of hands as punishment for theft, forced conversions to Islam, the murder of those who refuse to convert, or making women second-class citizens – Islamist groups can justify these actions using Islamic texts. 

In 2012, Islamist groups in Africa continued to gain ground, becoming a more prominent force while affected governments struggled to deal with them. Older groups such as al-Shabab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continued their reign of terror while new groups such as Ansar Dine and Supporters of Islam in the Land of Sudan emerged in 2012. If in 2013 governments fail to address Islamist groups in Africa as they did in 2012, the groups will only become stronger and cause more devastation. Some of these groups may come together in order to achieve their similar goals. Greater efforts are needed to combat Islamism in Africa and it is important to acknowledge that Islam, Africa's second largest religion, mandates the destructive actions of Islamists.