from Africa in Transition

Will the Radical Islamic Shoe Drop in West Africa?

September 18, 2012

Blog Post

Anti-American rioting recently erupted in the Middle East, and has spread from Indonesia to Tunisia. But, with the exception of Sudan-Khartoum, a borderland between Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa has been blessedly free of violence associated with the obscure video of American origin, The Innocence of Muslims that defames Islam. (According to al-Jazeera, an Egyptian Christian Copt and a pornographic film director played leading roles in its production.) The absence of a popular, violent reaction to the film is particularly noteworthy in Mali and Nigeria, two countries in which radical Islamic movements pose a direct threat to the state.

Nigeria has seen bloody reactions to perceived external insults to Islam before, notably and most recently the Miss World Beauty Pageant in 2002 that claimed at least 105 lives. This time there was the threat of violence in Jos, a city divided between Christians and Muslims  that has been the venue of particularly bloody conflict.  According to the Nigerian press, the authorities preemptively deployed security forces in Jos, Kano, and Kaduna, but, unlike in the Middle East, Friday preachers urged no protests. Apparently, these measures worked. Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group that has declared war on the secular Nigerian state, has been active in all three cities. But, its focus has been on Nigerian internal issues, not on worldwide Islam; its signature demand is the imposition of Islamic law on Nigeria. The radical phenomena is a direct threat to the traditional Islamic establishment in Nigeria, which it sees as corrupt.  Boko Haram’s presence may have inhibited political troublemakers who might otherwise have sought to exploit the video to advance their own interests.

In Mali, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) have largely taken over the northern part of the country and are imposing a particularly rigorous form of Islamic law including stoning and amputation. Their presence may be discouraging militant demonstrations in parts of the country they do not occupy, and where Islam traditionally has been tolerant.

Of course, these positive circumstances could change in an instant.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram might seek to exploit anger about the video as a way of attacking President Jonathan, who identifies with the United States. In Mali, the video might feed the extremist anger of Ansar Dine and Mujao, leading to attacks on Westerners, though very few are to be found in the territory they occupy. It is also possible that in other West African states fragmented ethnically, religiously or politically, elements might seek to exploit anger over the video to advance their own agendas.  Thus far, blessedly, that has not happened.