An African Vortex: Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Saudi encouragement of Islamization in the region is marked.  The Kingdom has transported and hosted hundreds of thousands of Africans performing the hajj, many of whom have undertaken the pilgrimage at the full expense of the Saudi government.  It has distributed inestimable copies of the Quran in strategically important African languages such as Somali, Hausa and Zulu.  And in 2002 alone, the Kingdom provided Iftar meals in 31 African countries benefiting more than 430,000 fasters.[20]

Saudi dissemination of Wahhabi ideology has, moreover, taken advantage of technological advances.  The recently established Channel Islam International – made possible through the patronage of Prince Bandar Bin Salman Bin Mohammed Al Saud, who serves as an advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah and as Chairman of the Private Commission for Islamic Call in Africa – attempts, with its satellite reach into more than 60 African and Middle Eastern countries, to “sow the seeds of religious education and growth, in meticulous compliance with the teachings of the Noble Quran and of the Prophet Muhammad.”[21]

Riyadh’s propagation activities in sub-Saharan Africahave met with great success.  A number of movements and organizations have been borne of Wahhabi inspiration – from the Izala of Nigeria, to the Al-Falah of Senegal, to the Jamiatul Ulama of South Africa.  Often, Saudi Arabiadirectly funds these groups, as is the case with the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council and the Muslim Association of Malawi.[22]  Importantly, the indigenous face of these groups puts them in a particularly advantageous position to advance their program from the bottom up – grassroots methods for the introduction of Wahhabism include the co-opting of local media and the organization of public meetings, among others.  The significance of these movements cannot be underestimated.

Not surprisingly, Saudi money often ends up in the hands of militants.  Many of the Saudi-sponsored NGOs operating in sub-Saharan Africahave been unmistakably linked to global terrorist groups.  For example, the Somaliaoffice of the Saudi-sponsored charity al-Haramain has been connected to al-Qaeda and the group Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya (AIAI) that has terrorized the Horn of Africa.  According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Al-Haramain funneled money to these organizations “by disguising funds as if they were intended for orphanage projects or Islamic school and mosque construction.”[23]

By no means should the above case be considered an isolated example.  As explained by a Tanzanian Islamist activist discussing the Saudi modus operandi, “Officially [Saudi] money is used to buy medicine, but in reality the money is given to support our work and buy guns.”[24]  And of course, aside from material supportSaudi Arabia’s promotion of Islamism creates a climate from which terrorist recruits can easily be gained and in which they can safely operate.  Given Saudi objectives, it is difficult to believe this is an unintended consequence of its “benevolent” activities.

The Wahhabi program for the transformation of Islam inAfricahas been underway for nearly a half century – its success can be seen in the growing acceptance of Wahhabi and neo-Wahhabi movements across the region.  Thanks to Saudi efforts, Wahhabism is now part of the sub-Saharan landscape and poised to continue its advance.

David McCormack
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