- Introduction to Special Issue:Muslim West Africa in the Age of Neoliberalism
Since the 1980s, Africa has experienced dramatic social, political, and economic changes. The impact of structural-adjustment programs, the political liberalization following the end of the Cold War, stepped-up economic liberalization, changing consumption styles and patterns, and the weakening of the state, particularly from cutbacks in state services and the effects of "globalization"—all of which are associated with "neoliberalism"—have been much discussed and debated in recent years.1 A number of scholars have recently made efforts to understand some of the religious transformations that have accompanied such changes, in various settings in Africa.2 However, much less attention has been paid to the experiences of Muslims in Africa in this period.3 The contributors to this special issue of Africa Today help fill this gap in our knowledge by exploring the experiences of Muslims in four countries of the West African Sahel—Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad—in the current neoliberal era.
In discussions of the recent changes in Africa, commentators have tended to focus on the impact of the West and the processes of liberalization, which many Western governments, donors, and institutions have called for and supported. Many have correctly pointed to the spread of Western models of the market, liberal democracy, culture, and consumption styles in Africa; however, the case studies in this special issue demonstrate the importance of expanding the analytical optics on the neoliberal era beyond "the West" and its effects. In the four countries considered here, one now finds vocal social actors who speak as Muslims and sometimes in their discourses make new kinds of references to Islam and the Muslim world. The influence of the Arab world (as well as Iran and South Asia) in many parts of Africa has still not been properly understood. Since 11 September 2001, various commentators—journalists, policymakers, and academics—have attempted to identify, or have merely asserted, the existence of nefarious ties between Muslims in Africa and Muslims elsewhere, particularly in the Arab world. It is clear that the recent liberalization, economic and political, with that of the media, has been associated in some places with closer and more complex ties and interconnections with the Muslim world that cannot be reduced to such [End Page vii] caricatures as "Islamist terrorism." In her article about Islamic transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Chad, Mayke Kaag argues that the dynamics associated with neoliberalism, especially those that encourage the intervention of NGOs and other "civil society" actors, have facilitated the humanitarian aid and proselytizing activities of Islamic NGOs from the Arab world (see also Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003). These Islamic NGOs generally aim to promote a modernist and Salafi view of Islam, as well as Arabization, understood here as the spread of the use of the Arabic language and other "Arab" cultural values and norms, which accompanies their development assistance in areas where the newly oil-rich Chadian state is often absent.
In the Sahelian countries considered here, the opening of political debate and the expansion of public spheres have meant that new and more-diverse social actors are now articulating their views. In some cases, such views were not permitted or publicly recognized in the era of one-party rule and state control of the media. Ousseina Alidou and Hassana Alidou in their article show how Islamist discourses have entered the public sphere with the opening up of political spaces in Niger since the 1990s. One of several initiatives to guarantee and protect the rights of its citizens within the context of political liberalization, the Quota Act was specifically designed to ensure women's greater participation in electoral positions and government posts. Alidou and Alidou's article explores the debate between secularists and Islamists and the opposition of Islamist women in particular to the Quota Act in Niger. The one Islamist woman featured in their article contests the elite secularist feminist vision of women's rights that is in line with international human-rights discourses and standards, though divergent from the views of significant numbers of ordinary Nigériens. As they demonstrate, the Islamist woman, who...