- Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed
Before September 11, 2001, the literature on political Islam largely ignored West Africa. The essays in this edited volume present an important corrective to this often overlooked part of the umma (Islamic community). Although the volume does not cover every country in the region, it offers six outstanding country studies, focusing on the politicization of Islam in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia, and Senegal. As a whole, the volume manages both to explicate the autonomy of intra-Muslim relations in the West African context, and to account for the specificity of statemosque relations in different national contexts.
The strength of the volume is its attentiveness to the local conditions under which Islam is politicized. For instance, Robert Charlick and Roman Loimeier, writing respectively on Niger and Nigeria, demonstrate how an indigenous, Islamist movement (Izala) is nationally inflected. Whereas the Izala movement in Niger appeals to people seeking an urban identity independent of ethnicity or the Sufi brotherhoods, the same movement in Nigeria has been subsumed into inter-religious conflict and has therefore had to move beyond the Sufi–Izala dichotomy. In two excellent chapters, Cédric Jourde and Leonardo Villalón suggest more broadly that the binary logic that posits a rigid Sufi–Islamist divide is insufficient. Villalón skillfully shows the mutual borrowings and entanglements between Sufi and Islamist leaders in Senegal, while Jourde illustrates how the construction of an “Islamist threat” in Mauritania was shaped by the dynamic interplay of authoritarianism and ethnicity. Even as the Mauritanian regime has strengthened its claim to rule by denouncing Islamist leaders as foreign enemies, the Gambian state, as analyzed by Momodou Darboe, has mobilized Islamist rhetoric to shore up its political power. In contrast to both the Gambian and Mauritanian cases, Victor Le Vine argues that in Mali, Islamic associations and democracy have been mutually and positively reinforcing. These fascinating case studies are framed by William F. S. Miles’s thorough historical and theoretical overview of the debates pertaining to Islamic movements in the region in his introductory and concluding chapters.
Though the volume succeeds in analyzing the transformation of state–mosque relations in the post-9/11 era, I believe it could have benefited from a more robust discussion with historians and anthropologists working on related research areas. Specifically, the book would have benefited from a closer engagement with scholars who have analyzed “political Islam” as a product of the liberal–secular distinction between the public, political domain and privatized religion. For instance, in his article “What is Political Islam?” Charles Hirschkind has suggested that the politicization of Islam [End Page 167] must be understood “in relation to the contemporaneous expansion of state power and concern into vast domains of social life previously outside its purview” (Middle East Report 205 :13). Such an engagement could help develop these scholars’ penetrating insights into the politicization of Islamic discourses by elucidating the ways modern state power provides the conditions of possibility for Islamist politics. In this case, Islamist politics might be understood not as an instrumentalization of religious beliefs, but as the reconfiguration of religion in the modern nation-state.
Nevertheless, this volume represents a significant contribution to the literature on state and religion in West Africa. Scholars and students of contemporary West African politics, religion, and civil society will find it an invaluable resource.