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Islam in Africa

Speakers: Stephen Ellis, senior researcher, Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden University; co-author, Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa, Jeffrey Tayler, correspondent, the Atlantic Monthly; author, Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel, and Sulayman Nyang, professor, Africa studies, Howard University
Presider: Princeton N. Lyman, Ralph Bunche senior fellow, Africa policy studies, Council on Foreign Relations
March 14, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations



Washington, DC

PRINCETON LYMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Thank you very much for coming today to what I know will be a very, very interesting discussion on Islam in Africa. My name is Princeton Lyman. I direct the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I’m honored to be here and moderating this session. And again, my thanks to all of you for coming today.

I have a couple of housekeeping things. The first is to follow my example and turn off your cell phones, pagers, and all the like. The second thing is to remind you that today’s meeting is on the record. Most Council meetings are off the record. Today is on the record. So you’re allowed to plagiarize and take all these views.

We have three wonderful speakers. You have their bios, and I’m not going to go into great detail, but we have three people with very different backgrounds and perspectives on this subject. And I’m delighted that we’re doing Islam in Africa because, as someone who focuses on Africa, we think of Islam often worldwide in terms of the Middle East or South Asia, and not with enough attention, in my view, to the very important traditions, history, and dynamics of Islam in Africa— over 300 million Muslims in Africa and, as I’m always frequent to remind people, more Muslims in Nigeria than in Egypt. So I’m delighted that we are having this discussion this morning.

And I’m going to ask, to begin, Jeffrey Tayler. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with a book he’s just written called Angry Wind. Mr. Tayler, who is a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly and based in Moscow, but who has traveled extensively in North Africa, has just taken a long, fascinating, interesting trip throughout the Sahelian region of Africa, traveling by bus and bush taxi and backs of trucks, et cetera.

And I wonder if we can start, Jeffrey, with you. And you experienced a lot of different cross currents when you were there— poverty, religiosity, some corruption, extraordinary acts of kindness. But I’m struck by the title of your book, Angry Wind. You also encountered anger. And I wonder if you could start us off by giving us some impressions of you, as an American, going through this region of Africa and what were the main cross currents you ran into, and how did they relate to us.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, I made the trip after September 11th and before the Iraq war, just before the war. So the— at the time I was there, the Bush administration was declaring its intent to invade Iraq, and that was on the news everywhere. It was the main topic, not just because I was involved in the conversation but because people were upset about it. And they would talk— and when they found out where I was from, which wasn’t— it wasn’t apparent that I was American— they would enjoy venting their anger over it.

But— and it wasn’t— there was a feeling— in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on a book tour, and one question that’s been coming up has been, “Well, of course you would expect that, because the Saudis are putting money into building madrassas and sending clerics over there, and they’re arousing people’s anger.” And in fact, no, there was really no relation. You didn’t need to be a radical to be against the Iraq war. People were naturally distressed, upset about it, and the more educated they were, the more in tune with what was going on in the world they were, the angrier they were.

And as we were saying before, people were very well informed. Another topic is, “Well, they’re getting planted news.” Well, the news is coming from Radio France International and BBC. So there isn’t— there is no need to stir up any fundamentalist sentiment. People were— the liberals were just as angry as the most religious Muslims. And so anger was pretty much the tenor of the trip, from start to finish. People weren’t necessarily angry with me, but they were certainly happy to have a chance to have an American in their hands and tell him about what they thought, although I had shared the sentiments. So—

LYMAN: One of the things in your book, Jeffrey, that I found that distinguished it is that you commented on how important religion is in people’s lives in many of the places you went. It’s a so fundamental part of their lives. I wonder if you might comment on your experiences in that regard.

TAYLER: Yeah. Well, there were Muslims and Christians, although this might be called “Muslim black Africa.” For both peoples, but probably more for Muslims, religion was the framework of life in a way it must have been in the West 200 or 300 years ago. But the first thing people did was pray, if they were Muslims, and the last thing, usually, before bed they did was pray. And there was not much alcohol consumption. People were generally fairly observant. And there were Sufis in some places, there were other kinds of Islam, but people basically adhered to the idea that they were brother Muslims or sister Muslims to the Iraqis, to the Palestinians, to Moroccans. So that was the framework of their lives.

LYMAN: And did you find sharp differences when you traveled, let’s say, out of the northern Sahel and into Nigeria: Kano, [inaudible], et cetera? What were your impressions there?

TAYLER: Yeah. Nigerians were probably amongst the best-informed people on my route. And because they have oil, they are very aware you’re in one of the main oil-producing countries in the world, yet there’s no gas in the gas station, the electricity is failing, the soldiers are beating people up on the street. Everybody is aware is that there’s all this money, all this potential, and yet all this corruption. So that fuels a lot of sentiments there. And they know that, obviously, the Bush family is an oil family, so there’s a sort of innate hostility towards the oil-producing— the allies of their government, which has changed in the last six or seven years but it hasn’t made any difference in anybody’s life.

LYMAN: It gets me to— this is the last question, Jeffrey, before I turn to the others, because one of the other things that just runs through your experiences there, it seems to me, is the poverty. And I wonder if you’d comment on that and how you saw that and how it was impacting on people’s attitudes and lives.

TAYLER: Well, the Sahel is by and large the poorest part of Africa. So, as people on the continent are living on an average of a dollar a day, in the Sahel they’re living on less than a dollar a day. So in one sense, that keeps people out of schools, it keeps people away from— it limits people’s exposure, which actually tends to keep them from being radical. The more money people have, the more exposure people have, the angrier they get over what’s been going on since September 11th till now.

But another thing that— the main aspect that’s important when you think about poverty there is it’s not something innate to Africa. A lot of it has to do with trade barriers and farm subsidies that the U.S. and Western Europe impose. And so the very upper crust of people who understand this know that they could be a lot better off if they could just sell their cotton and tobacco and other crops to the West. So at the same time that, even during the Clinton years, the U.S. administration was saying “trade, not aid,” or “free trade,” the U.S. is subsidizing its agriculture and keeping lots of the produce of African farmers out of the U.S. and Western European markets; including the French, the people who are most vocally opposed to the U.S., are doing pretty much the same thing, keeping people poor.

LYMAN: If I can turn to you, Sulayman. Professor Nyang is clearly one of the foremost experts on Islam in Africa and also Islam in America, has written extensively, is a professor at Howard University. And Sulayman, if I can ask you, what are the cross-currents going on in Islam and West Africa? You know, we hear and read about debates in Islam elsewhere in the world. What’s happening in West Africa? Are there deep theological debates going on? Are there political pressures coming from inside and outside? What are the dynamics? I know that could be two hours in a lecture, but we only have—

SULAYMAN NYANG: Yes. You know, I think this points to what Jeffrey has said. I think what he observed is reality on the ground. What we have to do, really, is to see to what extent these different tracks that he has identified— the economic tracks, cultural tracks, the historical tracks, and the theological tracks— how they manifest themselves in terms of the lifestyle of those who live in the Sahel as opposed to those who live in the coastal areas.

And I think what happened, really, it would have been a very good thing to find, if you take your book, which is based on an American, a Westerner, going to Africa at this time in human history, and you compare and contrast to [inaudible] 300 years ago going into Africa at that particular time— because you have more knowledge about Africa than he did at that time, but he made some very insightful observations at that time, because he was able to see the impact of Islam. Islam was still a struggling religion at that time against the old African religions. When you went there, Islam is already consolidated and Islam in many ways is identified with the state.

Now, another thing is poverty was there, but poverty has taken a different form. The poor are more conscious of their poverty vis-a-vis other humans than then, so that becomes very important today to realize. Then there is the political thread. The political thread is that if you were to take someone else, like some of the French writers, people like [inaudible] and others who, you know, wrote in the early part of the 20th century when France established itself in West Africa, or the British [inaudible] in Nigeria, what you find then is, if you look at what they wrote and what you have written and you go back 200 years earlier, what you see really is the continuity and discontinuity of poverty, and the changing of trade barriers.

Because, see, 300 years ago, it was from sub-Saharan Africa going out, the trans-Saharan trade, but since the establishment of colonialism and the freezing of the boundaries after the [1884-85] Berlin Conference, trade now is Atlantic. So really trans-Saharan has been replaced by the Atlantic. So you have the poverty that was created by the trans-Saharan states at the expense of the [inaudible], because they were the ones who’d get the mineral resources which ended up in Arab hands and in the Mediterranean. Now minerals from Africa are going to the Atlantic, to America, or to other parts of the world. So you can see that the geography of trade is different now from the geography of trade then. And I think these are the issues.

Now, you’re asking, “What are the different trends that are manifesting themselves in Africa today?” When the French came to Senegal, for example, they were taking power from those Africans who controlled the state. And then were creating new enclaves, like the [inaudible] communes, like Dakar, [inaudible], et cetera, and new kinds of Africans were emerging, Africans who were Western oriented to the point that you have an American scholar would write a book about Senegal, Senegal between Islam and the West, because these two strands are there. And both are very evident.

And if you want to prove this, Senegal is a very interesting bellwether with regard to what you are observing. There is the poverty, but in the degree of assimilation of Western culture and Islamic culture, among Africans, they have produced among the best, because you have [inaudible], who could be a member of the Academie Francaise, [inaudible], and then you have people like Malik Sy, who is the leader of the Sufi order, who wrote impeccable Arabic, like [inaudible] wrote in French, out of Senegal with all its poverty and all its [inaudible]. And that’s what you observe when you went there. And you can see the religion that is out there.

LYMAN: Stephen Ellis is a senior researcher at Leiden University, and he has written just recently a book called Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa. And Stephen, you’ve been looking at religion as a force of life in Africa, but you’ve also been looking at it, it seems to me, in terms of what it means for the state— successful or failing states. And I wonder if you might comment on this whole question of the role of religion and the state.

STEPHEN ELLIS: Well, to put it as simply as I can, I think what we’re observing going on in Africa at the moment— and for that matter, in very many other parts of the world, not just Africa, but particularly, perhaps, in what we used to call the Third World— is a kind of eruption onto the public stage of religion. I mean, I would be tempted to call it a religious revival, except that it’s never been away. I mean, African societies have always been religious. But you get a very strong impression, which is actually quite hard to define exactly, of religion taking a new role in public life, which we didn’t see 25 years ago, although people were just as religious 25 years ago. And clearly it’s got something to do with the phenomenon of so-called failed states. But it’s not just because of that, because we even see it in places like South Africa, which nobody thinks is a failed state.

LYMAN: Right.

ELLIS: But— and like I say, we’re seeing it in other parts of the world. I mean, if I may say so, we’re actually seeing it in the United States. We’re seeing religion becoming a force in public life in a way that would have been surprising 25 years ago. We’re seeing it in India, with, you know, militant Hinduism. We of course see it in various parts of the Middle East. So— and it’s certainly going on in Africa, but it’s happening in Africa in the context that we’ve just been hearing about, which is extreme poverty in many parts of the continent, not in all, and this phenomenon of so-called failing states, states which are not able to do what states are supposed to do, which is to uphold some kind of monopoly in violence in their own countries.

LYMAN: Sulayman, coming back to you, in that context, what— where do you see the role of Islam in dealing with the question of failed or failing states? And what are the implications you see for the United States in that process, in those states in which there’s a strong Islamic community?

NYANG: Yeah, I think Steve has raised a very good point, and it came out very clearly in your book on Liberia, you know, talking about the Liberian situation and the whole question of power, you know, and the manner in which power is manifested.

What has happened in Africa— and this is where America has an awesome responsibility, as the dominant force in world affairs now— if we are really concerned about security in Africa, if we are concerned about terrorism and the potential of recruiting young Africans who feel that, well, you know, especially those who have been— from your travels, if you come across some young people who are very anti-American, they may not be against you as an American, but they are against America as they perceive America. It’s a very funny kind of thing. You know, I love my— I love your brother, but you know, your family is the problem, [inaudible] [laughter] that kind of situation.

So I mean, the reality here is, in Africa, the faith— you have a triple-whammy situation. The old system of governance and your monopoly— and we’re deracinated because of the colonial experience— and the lack of legitimacy by the inheritors of the colonial order or the corruption of the legitimacy, because what has happened is when people who [inaudible] and all those people, they were able to use Western liberal concepts in a judo-like manner against the West, to the point that Western liberals, even Western conservatives were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to these movements.

But then once they take power, unfortunately, many of them establish one-party dictatorships. And then, of course, in the contest of will between these Westernized leaders, as we recall in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were replaced by military, and then corruption gets into the picture. That destroyed the legitimacy of the state. The state became a vampire state of some sort, a kleptocratic state. Various terms have been used by scholars to describe.

So this has— this is now responsible for the greater premium of religion. If you go to West Africa and in East Africa today, the best intellectual entrepreneurs are those who are trafficking in metaphysical concepts, because what happened is demonology. The old pre-scientific concepts still prevail in rural Africa and even in urban Africa. People are uncertain about their future. They are living a different kind of fear. You know, you have these sort— you’re writing a book, Republic of Fear. So you have a republic of fear, but it’s the politics of the belly and the politics of the head. People are afraid that their kids will not have food. They are not secure, because they can have a coup d’etat anyway. Once upon a time, the Syrians used to find themselves in a very unstable situation, to the point that when they wake up in the morning, they greeted one another, “Do we have a new government?” So I mean, you know, like the reality is, you know, you have these dictatorships in Africa who have not lived up to the expectation of the old order in terms of kingship, because if you are a chief, you are supposed to take care of your people. And the moral values that were very much central to leadership are no longer there.

So these are some of the problems. This is why religion becomes important. The religious leaders are the ones who can now at least promise you that if you are a failure here, if you follow us, you may be a success in the hereafter. And, of course, this is why metaphysics becomes the best consolation.

LYMAN: But it’s more than that, it seems to me, it’s also that religious leaders are offering alternatives in the here and now in offering services, et cetera, and in northern Nigeria, with the institution of sharia law [the body of Islamic law], criminal law, the idea that at least we can bring some order out of chaos. Isn’t that—

NYANG: It is happening. Actually, this is happening. If you look at— and I’d like to hear what Jeffrey and Steve observed in their travels. What is very evident, and we can see that, take Somalia. Somalia is a failed state. But Somalia is really a bundle of paradoxes and ironies. The Somali Humpty-Dumpty is being put together right now, as we speak. Now, in Somalia, law and order, which is expected from the state, was not forthcoming. But then it is the Islamic leaders who were able to bring law and order in Somalia. That’s one of the ironies, because Somalia was led by modernizers who were secularists— Siad Barre and others, they were secular, they were not Islamic at all. But they failed to give Somalia law and order to the point that the former [U.S.] secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, would identify Somalia and others as failed states. So the whole failed state phenomena becomes a reality, but it’s [inaudible] the contradiction. We’re supposed to be modernizing and living religion in one sphere, but as a result of these failed states, religion is coming back with a vengeance.

And then you have another manifestation of religion, and now you go back to West Africa, where religion becomes the replacement for ethnicity. Once upon a time, when people analyzed Nigeria, they would always identify ethnicity as the major problem. Now religion has come into the picture, because of what? What I call the international fundamentalist cartels, the international fundamentalist cartels of the Christian or Muslim are really going after each other for a variety of different reasons in different parts of Africa. This is where economics come in.

LYMAN: Was that your impression, Jeffrey, in Northern Nigeria? Did you run up against these comments on sharia law and the introduction of sharia law?

TAYLER: Yeah, for the most part, in talking about that, I talked to Christians who were very angry that they were being made to adhere to it, even though the law is supposed to apply only to Muslims; they’re a majority Muslim region, so nobody can— it wasn’t that they wanted to go out and drink and dance all the time, but just that they did have to observe the law. And yet, the state can’t enforce it. So it seemed to be very unclear who actually could bring you before a sharia court.

So the fear people had was that it would be used as a means of taking revenge. And when September 11th happened and the Iraq war was being touted, that was one factor that got people angrier— that created more friction between the communities, the imposition of sharia law.

LYMAN: [Inaudible] and it will vary from country and area, but if you take a country like Nigeria, where one hears this— and I’ve been there since the Iraq war broke out, and you hear it very much related to the Iraq war— but is the fundamental tension an issue in a place like Nigeria where religion is, as Sulayman says, has risen to a higher level [inaudible] the international scene or the domestic scene— what is driving people? I mean, it’s easy to talk about the Iraq war and say, you know, that they’re angry at the United States. But is there really fundamental worry about Nigeria, whether they’re just too much of a Christian state or too much wealth in the south, et cetera?

TAYLER: Well, I don’t think they make the division between domestic and international politics, at least not with issues like Afghanistan and Iraq, because those are domestic— those are issues Christians and Muslims could get into a street fight over, even though neither of them have been to Afghanistan or Iraq. And their news coming mainly from the BBC and Radio France, there is very little local news, and if there is, people don’t tend to watch it or listen to it.

LYMAN: So there’s a connection going on between these international events and domestic pressures and tensions, and they meld into each other?


LYMAN: Stephen, just one last question and then I’m going to open it up for questions. Stephen, Sulayman raises this point about ethnic issues becoming religious issues. You’ve recently been looking at other parts of West Africa. What’s your thoughts on this— on that?

ELLIS: Well, I think the first thing I’d say is that I think a lot of people— a lot of people in the West, certainly in Europe and probably America too, they have, in my view, a fundamentally wrong idea about what is meant by “ethnic groups” as we call them, or “tribes” as Africans themselves often call them in Africa. And people often have the idea that before Africa was colonized there were literally thousands of these ethnic groups that were like mini nations, you know, with a common language, common set of customs, some sort of central political authority, and that that was— you know, these were the Zulus, these were the Yoruba. And it really wasn’t like that.

There were, of course, people using ethnic labels, including terms like Yoruba and Zulu, which we’ve all heard of; those terms existed also in pre-colonial times. But the nature of what these things represented was essentially made during colonial times, and even more recently. Even now, ethnic groups are being— you know, ethnicity as we now understand it is essentially a product of nationalism; it’s a way of mobilizing people for political contests for power. So it’s inseparable from the modern state. And religion can be used also for political purposes, and it is being used. You see in some cases in Africa very clearly religion being used to mobilize people for— you know, just like a political party, so that you can get votes, you can win power.

But, of course, religion has the advantage in certain circumstances, certainly if it’s Islam or Christianity, global religions, you can also touch audiences in the United States or the Middle East or anywhere else in the world by putting things a certain way. And also, religion, as we’ve just been hearing, it affects people’s lives very fundamentally. People use religion in all kinds of ways, from just getting psychological and spiritual strength to survive, but also things like healing. You know, most people can’t afford to go to hospitals, they can’t afford Western medicines, you know, pills and what have you. So what they have is, they go to religious healers, who sometimes can be quite effective with certain types of sickness. So religion, it’s a way for— it’s part of people’s daily lives, it’s part of their whole existence, and therefore, it can also mobilize communities in a very effective way.

LYMAN: You remind me of a study done some years ago that found that the training of traditional healers in Africa bore a great deal of similarity to the training of psychiatrists in the United States. [Laughter] I’m going to open it up to questions. And, please, when you raise a question, get the microphone, and then please identify yourself. The gentleman right here. You have the microphone coming right behind you.

QUESTIONER: Princeton, your panel generally seemed to suggest— Ralph Buultjens, New York University. Your panel generally seemed to suggest that one of the reasons why religion has advanced certainly in the public sphere is the failure of politics. Now, my question is this: If that is so, does religion have the capacity to fix the problems that politics hasn’t addressed? And if religion doesn’t do that, what is the next stage?

LYMAN: Sulayman, do you want to try that?

NYANG: Yes. Well, as a political scientist, I would say that coming out of the American political science background here, we tend to define politics as, you know, the authoritative allocation of values— those of you remember [former American Political Science Association President] David Easton talking about politics.

But what I would say is the human being is basically on the demarcation line between certainty and uncertainty. That’s the human condition. And this is where politics and religion are the most important issues to be thought about by human beings. One addresses the uncertainty of life, economics will be [inaudible] because economics is part of politics [inaudible] economy. I mean, the religious part of it is addressing the uncertainty of existence. And of course, politics addresses the question of here and now, and all the uncertainties about here and now. So the mortality question and the [inaudible] question.

Now, in the African context, these two are rightfully indistinguishable because human power— and this is true for humans in the last 200 years with the Industrial Revolution— human power in Africa, human control over the natural forces is still very limited compared to the West. In America, humans may develop hubris, feeling a sense of “we are becoming more powerful as humans.” Until nature lashes out, we have a major disaster like in the Indian Ocean [with the December 2004 tsunami], then all of a sudden we realize our common mortality.

Now, in Africa, these people who are living under one dollar a day, they are like that proverbial donkey trying to get that carrot of security. They’ll never get that carrot of security because, you know, the carrot is always dangling before them and there is the [inaudible] of uncertainty, and this is what is happening in the African context.

So what I would say really is— to answer your question— if politics fail, religion can only address the larger issue of your— you know, that you may be a loser here, so you have the hope— that’s why demonology becomes— many Africans, I would say most Africans, they still believe in demonology; they still believe in witches, witchcraft. So who can address the issue if you don’t have a medical doctor to address your problem of disease? You go to the spiritual doctor, so he will be the one who will develop as the custodian of African cornucopia; on the one hand doing the job of the drug companies here, and they also develop as psychiatrists. So you see like you have this compounded kind of situation. So they address your reality with regard to here and now, and they address your reality beyond the grave.

QUESTIONER: And so what happens if it fails?

NYANG: If it fails, then you are in a mess, [laughter] because you get all your eggs crushed. You put— they hedge their bets. I’ll give you an example— not to take too much time. But I’ll give you an illustration. The celebrated Peace Corps volunteer who went to Nigeria, and when he went to Nigeria he was traveling from— some of you have heard this before, you know, I told— there are some friends here who maybe they heard this before. This American Peace Corps volunteer who went to Nigeria, traveling from Lagos to Ibadan, and he boarded a lorry. I’m sure you’ve traveled on a lorry. Now, you notice that, in West Africa, they are very fascinated with slogans on their lorries, and one of the typical West African statement is: “No condition is permanent.” That’s the common mantra: “No condition is permanent.”

Now, this Peace Corps volunteer boarded a lorry, and then he noticed that there was a sticker. He asked the lorry driver, “Oh, you have a sticker?” “Yes, I went to my fitter”--you know the English, they use “fitter,” they don’t say “mechanic.” The fitter— “My fitter fixed the brakes and the motor vehicle gave me a sticker.” So he’s road-worthy. But then this Peace Corps volunteer was very anxious. He said, “But what is this cross dangling here?” “Oh, you don’t know? That is the cross of Saint Christopher, that is the patron saint for travelers.” He said, “Why do you have that?” “Just in case.” Then he noticed that there was a wooden [inaudible] dangling, and this American Peace Corps volunteer— to address your question again— asked him, “What is this?” “The Ogun, you don’t know? This is Ogun.” This American doesn’t know [inaudible] “Who is Ogun?” “Ogun is the god of iron. We’re in a lorry.” The guy asked him, “Why you have this?” “Fail-safe device. If my mechanic cheated me or he didn’t fix my brake, maybe Saint Christopher will save me. If Saint Christopher fails, then Ogun will help me.” So they put their eggs in three different baskets.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible]

NYANG: Then they are in a mess.

LYMAN: Then we get to the fail-safe, I think.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible]

NYANG: Yeah, I’ve heard of [inaudible].

LYMAN: We’ll come back to that, Ralph. The lady right here.

QUESTIONER: Norma Globerman. I’d be grateful if the panel could give those of us who don’t have an updated database for this a quick picture of the parts of Africa that you’re talking about— well, let’s say south of the North African tier— as to what are now the statistics on the majority or not majority of Islamic followers in the major countries as against the group following Christianity; and in relation to tribal religions, which, as you pointed out is still very strong, some idea of the general statistics, and if Islam is growing, is it a bigger force than it was?

Also, I’m not quite sure I understood, on the reference to failed states, whether there is a suggestion that Islam or religion as a whole has become more important in countries because they’ve failed or because countries have failed because religion is that important, or another explanation. I’m not sure of the relationship between the failure element and the religion Islam, or—

LYMAN: I’m sorry we don’t have a map here. It would have made it very easy. But Sulayman, could you give just a quick picture of the Islamic portions in Africa? And then I’ll ask Stephen to comment on the failed states.

NYANG: Yeah. I mean, in terms of statistics, we don’t have any reliable statistics that is universally accepted by the two forces. There is always the problem of the politics of statistics. You know, like you see that in Nigeria. That’s why you will never know how many people belong to one religion as opposed to the other, because you have very explosive statistics. And the Census Bureau, sometimes they are very smart; they don’t take religious statistics. But most of the scholars who are looking at religion will say that Islam and Christianity are almost equally divided around the continent, and both camps have members who have double loyalties. They are loyal to Christianity, but they also embrace traditional African religions. So that is where the situation is.

What is happening, is each— this is where the international fundamentalist cartels come in. They want to sell their icons to the larger people, who are still mixed. And they all have terms to describe. The Christians will say, “These people are [inaudible], they are not sufficiently acculturated into Christianity.” The Muslims will say, “These are people who are jahiliyyah. They are still in the age of ignorance. They have not crossed the threshold to be part of the real Muslims.” So in terms of numbers, that’s how I would say it.

Now, if you look at the individual countries, you will see clearly that Senegal, Gambia, Mali have Muslim majorities, and then as you go towards the coastal areas, as you move further away from— the Sahelian states down, you begin to have Christian majorities. And that’s one reason why jokingly I always tell— you heard me say this before— that’s why I always tell the joke about Africa being the battleground not of imperialists but of two insects, the mosquito and the tsetse fly, defining the borders of religion. And that is what happened, because the Arabs could not go to the south because of the tsetse flies, and the Europeans could not go to the interior because of the mosquito.

LYMAN: I would just add to that that in those areas where the two religions are up against each other in some places and working very well together in others, is where some of the greatest tension is. In Nigeria, proselytization, the lines becomes the most explosive issues, whether in one direction or another, and there are very strong international efforts to promote that proselytization from both sides. And that becomes a very important part of the domestic politics, then, of these countries. But Stephen, do you want to comment a little on the relationship to failed states?

ELLIS: Yeah, I would very much like to. I’m a historian myself, and I think it’s now absolutely crystal clear that, looking back, that all of us made a wrong judgment around about the 1960s or ‘70s, when African states became independent, because we thought, “OK, that’s the end of the colonial period, we’re now into a new age.”

And looking back, I have a very strong sense, as do, I think, many other people, that that wasn’t correct; that there was a great continuity between the colonial types of government and what happened immediately afterwards, based on the type of states, the way business was done, the way government was conducted, and that those types of states have been “failing,” for want of a better word, or “changing,” or whatever, since really the 1970s.

In other words, a historical chapter closed not in the 1960s because of independence, but in the 1970s because of economic changes, because of various other things that I won’t go into now, and that we’re now into a new chapter. And one of the significant things in this new chapter is that we’re seeing religion and politics combining in new ways. Interestingly, many of these, when you look at them, when you see what’s going on and you say, “Now, what is happening here?” you can actually find great similarities with pre-colonial times.

In other words, people are finding ways of living together in conformity, often, with their own positions, which is not to say they’re going back to the past. Of course they’re not. They’re using what resources they have to live in the 21st century. It’s really to do with, you know, the colonial state is now more or less finished, and people— of course, the heritages are there, but people are finding new ways of combining, which in many ways harks back to an older period of history because there’s a deep continuity there. And I don’t think— I can’t think of any case— I don’t think there is any case where religion has caused a state to fail. That’s not what’s happening.

But finally, just one last point on that, and that’s that again, people often think of Africa as being somehow marginal to the world; you know, the one continent that’s not really involved in globalization, and it only has less than 2 percent of world trade, and so on and so forth. It’s true that Africa is, of course, the poorest continent, but Africa is fully globalized. It’s fully involved in everything that’s going on in the world. It’s just that when you look at the ways in which it’s linked to world events, it’s often by, as it were, the underside of what’s going on.

So you think that within five miles of where we’re sitting, there are very substantial African communities living in New York; worshiping, selling, living, often very closely related to their homelands, including in West Africa, Senegal, for example. You know, they’re global like everybody else. They travel, they migrate. They listen to the BBC “World Service.” They belong overwhelmingly to world religions, like Islam and Christianity. Interestingly, some of the so-called traditional religions are now globalizing too, so that we now have Americans becoming Yoruba— you know, adhering to the Yoruba religion. There are probably more people practicing Yoruba religion in the United States than there are in Nigeria.

LYMAN: The gentleman right there, and then I’ll come to Tilden, and then over here.

QUESTIONER: Wilder Abbott, formally in international banking, spent 15 years in West Africa. One of the speakers alluded to the— I think he was talking about Nigeria, I’m not sure, as a feeding ground, or recruitment ground, I guess was the word, for terrorism and so forth. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and how much of a concern that should be to anyone today as to the present-day situation in West Africa in religion.

NYANG: Yeah, I think that’s a good one. It’s the politics of poverty and the manner in which the politics of poverty could create the conditions, because if you bring together the politics of poverty and the politics of religious fanaticism, then you have a very dangerous cocktail. And I think this is something that, you know, policy-makers here, or anywhere in Africa, are very much aware of. You know, they recognize the fact that— let me give you an example, and I’m sure maybe when you travel in West Africa, this observation was made.

After 9/11, you did have some of these kids— now some scholars and some journalists dismiss it as, you know, these are just punk kids, you know, like who are engaged in some kind of a, you know, imitation of what is going on internationally. So you find in Nigeria, for example, there were kids wearing t-shirts with Osama bin Laden. Maybe they don’t understand the implication of that, but it was done. And you find, you know, in some of the other West African states were kids, you know, who were driving taxis, maybe innocently, but they wear— if they don’t have shirts, somebody give them the shirt, they wear it.

So— but you see, you can see how those kids could be cannon fodder for forces beyond their comprehension. And of course, since 9/11, we came to know a lot more about some of these connections that were evident. This was— one of these were— for example, in South Africa, the U.S. government was very concerned and the South African government was genuinely concerned about PAGAD— PAGAD, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs. That’s the acronym. People Against Gangsterism and Drugs. And these people once upon a time were very popular in the Cape Flat area of South Africa because they were dealing with drugs, pushers there. And of course, they saw what was being done in America by people like [Nation of Islam Minister Louis] Farrakhan in keeping the drug addicts out of their neighborhoods. So you have that.

Now it’s very simple to— for someone to take advantage of their dissatisfaction with America, as you observed, not the American individual but the government, to be recruited, if you don’t help them to improve their material condition.

LYMAN: Jeff, do you want to comment on that from your—

TAYLER: Yeah. Osama bin Laden is probably the greatest folk hero of the Islamic world. It does— when I was traveling around, I saw the bin Laden t-shirts, bin Laden pictures in taxis. He was known before September the 11th, so it’s not specifically related to the attacks, but that obviously gave him a lot more PR [public relations]. And even people who— basically, the idea is that he was a religious leader, so people understood him as a mujahid, or a holy warrior, before September the 11th, but now definitely amongst young people, who are more and more aware of the straits they’re in, Osama bin Laden has become sort of an idol. And whether he’s killed or captured won’t make any difference; he’s already sort of a [communist revolutionary] Che Guevara of the region.

And another point is that, when we’re talking about religion and politics, one thing people say is— in Africa, if you’re looking at the failed state and the corruption— they say, “Well, religion is the one thing we haven’t tried.” That is, they— even though Iran became fundamentalist 25 years ago, people are not really looking at that. People are saying that, “If we really tried, if we really instituted Islamic law and we had an Islamic government, then all of these problems might disappear, and we could unite and be part of the Islamic world, and what we really”--and the whole idea behind why religion is so important is that people feel it hasn’t been tried, even if we see it differently.

LYMAN: Tilden and then John and then Walter.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Tilden LeMelle, Africa Today Associates, a former publisher of the journal Africa Today. If I understood all of you correctly, what you’ve outlined for us is a rising preeminence of religions and religious leaders, particularly because of the failed legitimacy of the political parties, political structure in a number of African countries. Also implicit in some of your discussion, there is the tension between Christianity and Islam in particular.

My question is what are the implications, then, if these are the facts, for the development of participatory democracies in the African countries where we have these phenomena? And additionally, what are the implications for at least the enunciated foreign-policy program of the current administration in Washington to democratize the whole country? What are the possibilities for success or failure, given those facts as you’ve enunciated them? And anybody can answer, but my old friend Sulayman—

NYANG: OK, let me start, and then—

QUESTIONER: I’m going to ask my old buddy, Sulayman, to answer first.

NYANG: I think this is where what I call “America’s moral currency”--this is where America’s moral currency is at stake in the African continent. I mean, you know, if you give the African the dollar, he will be glad to take it, but whether the Africans, especially Muslims— and I want to hear what you guys observe on the ground there— if you give the dollar, they’ll take the dollar, but will they take the word of the American president when he says he’s going to push for democratization? Now, I think it all depends on the situation you are addressing. I think there is genuine interest among Africans to have governments that are accountable, that are elected and are controlled. The only thing is, the Africans feel doubly cheated. The leaders who came to power using the ballot box institutionalized, as I said, one-party dictatorships, and they continued until the collapse of the Cold War and the return of the so-called second wave of democratization. That’s one.

The other thing for the Africans is that, during the Cold War, the U.S. really was not seriously interested in pushing for democracies in these countries. I mean, they wanted to have people who supported them against the Soviet Union at all cost, and the Soviet Union was not interested in democracy in Africa. The Soviet Union wanted to have fellow travelers who are communists. And of course, this reinforced the dictatorships, like [the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President] Mobutu [Sese Seko] and all the other dictators that you found in Africa. They stayed in power, just like they have their counterpart in Philippines with [President Ferdinand] Marcos and in other parts of the world, in Korea, and all the other places.

And I think now the moral currency of America is at stake. If America is going to be committed to democracy, America has to live it and support people who are democratically elected, and insist that there are free and fair elections and you are willing to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak, as we say here, and you have to make sure that American dollars reinforce America’s moral currency. So together, America will have greater weight in terms of promoting democracy because then the Africans will use the dollars to trade. Jokingly, I always tell Africans that if you want to know whether the Americans are committed to democracy, they have to be sure that they create in these impoverished neighborhoods of Africa “Dollar Stores,” where you can buy anything. The women, they don’t have anything. There is nowhere in Africa where you can go and buy a set of batteries for a dollar the way they do in America here, over there. And I want to hear my colleagues’ response to that.

ELLIS: Well, very quickly, since 1989 or 1990, of course, there’s been a wave of democratization through Africa, and virtually every country is now democratic in the sense of having elections periodically and having more than one political party. However, with a few exceptions— there are a few exceptions, but by and large, what successful politicians have found is that they can stay in power even when they’re quite unpopular, by all kinds of techniques, rigging elections. I mean, [Zimbabwe’s President Robert G.] Mugabe is an example and there are many other examples. They found that they can still stay in power despite democracy.

So, in many places, there’s quite a lot of cynicism about democracy not because that people don’t want it, but they generalize that it’s not solving their problems. I would say in very many parts of the continent, not all, as I think I’ve indicated, there’s a fundamental problem of legitimacy or illegitimacy of the whole political dispensation, of the state itself. And also, even more fundamentally, now in the last 10 or 20 years there’s a problem— a lot of people just see no— they see no hope in the future. I’m not saying that they’re all giving up, because what impresses everybody, I think, is the incredible energy and dynamism that people have. But people, young people in particular, see absolutely no point in staying in their country, because they see no prospect of improving themselves, therefore they want to emigrate. They want to go to Europe, they want to go to Japan, they want to go anywhere where they think they can make a better life for themselves.

And I would say that the most important thing for international policy-makers to do is to get some— not easy to do, because this is not something you can legislate, but is to create hope, so that people think, “Well, if I work hard or do whatever, get an education, then in 10 years’ time I might be better off than I am now, or my children might be better off than me,” because that sort of feeling is gone.

LYMAN: I’m going to take—

QUESTIONER: A follow-up on that?

LYMAN: Well, Tilden, I need to get in— I’m going to take three questions because we’re almost running out of time, just to go John, Walter, and then there was another question over here. The gentleman right there. I’ll take those, and then I think it will run the time out.

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. John Hirsch, International Peace Academy. Recognizing how hard it is to generalize across all these countries, I want to ask you if you think that the nature of Islam in Africa is changing; specifically, whether you think it is becoming less tolerant than it was. I’m thinking of Somalia, for example, where women used to be able to work freely, they did not have to wear head scarves, or if they did, it was kind of very limited, and they had a lot of opportunities. It was something in Saudi Arabia that was not available at the same time. And in Sierra Leone, Catholics and Muslims intermarried, and so on. And to what extent, if you think it’s changing in a less tolerant way, is this the result of deliberate interventions, even before 9/11, from countries like Iran or from Hezbollah or others, for motivations that have nothing to do with Africa?

LYMAN: The gentleman right there, and then Walter will get the last question.

QUESTIONER: Larry McQuade from River Capital. I’m interested in whether the Islamic religion is a force at all in helping the Africans deal with the AIDS problem.

LYMAN: Walter?

QUESTIONER: Walter Carrington, Simmons College. I’m concerned about the implications for U.S. foreign policy, sort of following up what Tilden had brought up, and whether or not you think that the sort of Pentagon approach to Africa, such as the Pan Sahel Initiative [to assist Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania with counterterrorism efforts], as opposed to the State Department— it seems to me that we’ve got a situation where the military is much more interested in Africa than the State Department is, and whether or not this is likely to end up with more radicalization of the Islamic community since our diplomatic efforts, our diplomatic presence in many places, such as northern Nigeria and East Africa, as Tilden— as Princeton has often pointed out, is receding, whereas our military interests are increasing.

LYMAN: OK. We have three questions and we’ve got about three, four minutes.

NYANG: With respect to the question that you raise, I would say the African states are really in a very difficult situation right now in terms of addressing this issue. And I will say the jury is still out. We just have to wait and see how these things play from one place to the other. You cannot make a general statement about the whole continent, because it varies from place to place. So this is the jury’s still out and you have to just go on a case-by-case basis.

Now, the question about the Somali women being— and so on, I think there is still liberalism. I think the forces of liberalism are still strong. The only thing is that the politics of the belly and the social prestige together create problems and somehow privilege these external groups and the competition between the cartels.

The question you raised about AIDS and the contribution of Islam to AIDS, yes, I mean what the research has found is that AIDS is all over the continent but it is greater in some parts of Africa than others. You know that it is much more so in Southern Africa and Central Africa. And there are reasons for that. And some of the scholars who have written about AIDS, I had one student who wrote her dissertation on— I mean her master’s thesis on this whole question of AIDS and Islam in Africa, looking at northern Nigeria and some other places. But what is evident in the literature is that the Muslim societies are less affected by AIDS not because they are better people than others, but the whole concept of circumcision in many of these societies. In fact, some scholars, some of the scientists have found out that in Senegal, for example, the soil in Senegal to some extent has a lot of selenium, and that, to some extent, contributes to the difference between Senegal. Whether that is true or not is something else. Then you have the discussion about Central Africa and Southern Africa, where you observe alcohol consumption. I mean, alcohol consumption is much more in East Central Africa and Southern Africa than, say, in the Muslim parts of Africa.

LYMAN: I would just add one thing quickly as to that question, and that is, in Senegal the very important role of Islamic leaders in coming to grips early on with the AIDS issue and have contributed, along with government and others, to keeping the percentage of infection in Senegal very low, below 2 percent. And religious leaders have played a very strong role in that.

NYANG: And Tilden’s question, you know, is also— I think I would say that the policy-makers have decided to pursue the war on terrorism, so this created a parallel issue with it. And in the eyes of many of the Muslims— and I want to hear what Jeffrey has to say with regard to his observation on the ground— is that, if you look at what is happening, is that the word “terrorism” has now become almost the monopoly of the Muslims, whereas in terms of its origin, until the Palestinians came on the scene, there was no connection between terrorism and the Muslim world.

LYMAN: Policy, Jeff?

TAYLER: I was going to actually speak to the question about whether Islam was radicalizing.


TAYLER: No, I don’t feel, from what I’ve seen going back and forth to the region since ‘95, I don’t think religion— in this case Islam is what, as it is everywhere, what people make of it. And what has changed, are the forces affecting— what has changed are the events that have made it a [inaudible]--that is, people are angry with the United States, they’re angry at the West, and so Islam is a natural vent for that because that’s their identity, that’s how they separate themselves from others. So that was what I was going to say about that.

LYMAN: Anybody want to address the foreign-policy question?

ELLIS: You know, I would like to address that. I mean, as I think everybody knows, for purely domestic reasons, in America there is sometimes a different policy track between the State Department and the— I have to choose my words carefully here— and the Pentagon. What I’ve noticed myself in Africa and talking to American military is that there is— the Pan Sahel Initiative is a very good example. In sections of the U.S. military, there’s now quite a lot of interest in Africa, I think fundamentally because of oil and because of Islam. And one gets the impression that there are some policies where the military component is not being balanced with a sufficient diplomatic component, which we would normally expect to be coming from the State Department. I think that was the sense of your question, and I agree with what I take to be the sense of your own opinion.

LYMAN: Well, on that— and we covered a lot of territory— we must end now. But I’d like you to join me in thanking our panelists for very, very great insights. [Applause] And let me thank you all again for coming.






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