The United States, West Africa, and Islam: Connections, Romanticization, and Securitization


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Ummatic thinking will require not just a global consciousness but also attention to the relationships between particular communities and regions within the umma. For Muslims in the United States, one consequential relationship is with West Africa. Ongoing research is underlining the long historical pedigree of Islam in what is now the United States, and much of that research is highlighting the role of enslaved West African Muslims, most famously Omar bin Said (d. 1864), in American history. In the present, a number of diasporic, institutional, educational, and political ties connect different parts of the American Muslim community to different Muslim communities in West Africa.

West Africa’s Islamic heritage and contemporary richness, moreover, is gaining increasing recognition. For too long, racist assumptions (by some Western scholars, but also by some non-African Muslims) shaped views of sub-Saharan Africa as a peripheral, even negligible part of Islamic history. However, not merely the famous city of Timbuktu, but also sites such as Shinqit, Walata, Tivaouane, Touba, Kaolack, Djenné, Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, Borno, and many others were sites of major intellectual and political achievement. This heritage belongs to the region in particular but also, in some sense, to all Muslims, including those in America. And the idea of West Africa as a key part of Islamic history can hold special inspiration for Americans, whether of African descent or not—if the United States is part of an “Atlantic world,” then American Muslims also belong to a kind of “Muslim Atlantic” that includes Europe as well as West, North, and even Central Africa.

Yet there are also two major complexities in the relationship between American Muslims and West African Muslims. The first is various forms of romanticization depicting the West African past or the West African present as a spiritual ideal. Such romanticization, however, neglects to grapple with certain crucial issues, discussed below. The second is the securitization of West Africa in U.S. government policy and in much journalism, think tank analysis, and “countering violent extremism” programming. These two issues can collide, especially when the U.S. government itself is keen to objectify and elevate aspects of so-called “African Islam” at the expense of others. Ummatic thinking in the cross-regional sense requires not simply celebrating the heritage and contributions of Muslims elsewhere, but also reflecting on the ways that outside forces shape relationships between Muslims from different regions—and the ways in which outside forces affect how Muslims see each other.

Let me be clear: my reference to romanticization is not a veiled way of criticizing African-American Muslims who take pride and inspiration from the West African Muslim past. In fact, one problematic form of romanticization of West Africa has to do with silences around anti-blackness and other forms of intra-Muslim discrimination in parts of West Africa itself, for example in Mauritania. For many Muslims around the world, including in the United States, Mauritania has deservedly come to symbolize and instantiate a site of deep traditionalist Islamic learning, a destination where it is possible to obtain a profoundly rigorous Islamic education in fiqh, grammar, and other fields. Yet it is simultaneously true that the country’s most famous scholars remain overwhelmingly bidan or “white,” and that institutional racism in the country benefits not just the bidan political elite but also the bidan scholarly elite. Mauritania’s ongoing problems with slavery and the legacies of slavery are less exceptional than Western media may realize. But slavery and its effects are still a source of profound trauma in the country—and instances of bidan scholars issuing fatawa condemning presently existing slavery are still exceptional enough that local media covers them when they occur. Meanwhile, episodes of anti-black violence in Mauritania have occurred within living memory, and the effects of those episodes are also still felt. Mauritania can be both a bastion of Islamic learning and a site of insidious racism (just as the United States is both a field of astonishing innovation and a horrendously unequal society), and it is precisely that complexity that ummatic thinkers must grapple with.

Slavery, moreover, has multiple layers in the region’s history, in that West African Muslims were both victims of the slave trade and, in some locales, rulers of slave-owning societies. The conditions and scope of the Atlantic slave trade make it a fundamentally different phenomenon than slavery in, say, precolonial northern Nigeria. But Muslim societies in West Africa, even in precolonial times, had deep internal inequalities.

Romanticization also affects images of West African Sufism, particularly in Senegal. One need not be anti-Sufi to question the image of Senegal as a kind of Sufi utopia. There is a serious case to be made for “Senegalese exceptionalism,” as the only West African country that has never experienced a military coup, and as one of the first West African countries where an incumbent accepted defeat in an election. The role of Sufi shaykhs as brokers between state and society does play a part in Senegal’s political stability. Yet many of those same shaykhs have also typically been pro-incumbent, even overlooking instances of soft authoritarianism by some of the country’s presidents (including the current one).

The idea of Senegalese exceptionalism leads into a discussion of the War on Terror and how it hangs over perceptions of West Africa, especially in Washington but even within parts of the American Muslim community. The War on Terror has, among its other deleterious effects, sharpened a tendency for Washington to categorize Muslims as “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” On Washington’s imaginary scale, Senegalese Sufis would rank near the top of the “good” list. I cannot count how many policy-related meetings I’ve been in where I’ve heard people who clearly know little about Sufism, or even about Senegal, reference the “Sufi brotherhoods of Senegal” as a kind of ideal. Yet among other issues, the idealization of Senegalese Sufis overlooks the fact that Sufis are present in many other West African countries as well, including currently conflict-torn parts of Mali and Nigeria.

Although being favored by Washington is not something that West African Sufis have for the most not actively sought, even unsolicited positive attention nevertheless carries downsides. In some policy-oriented analysis and even more so in media treatments, it is often implied that African Sufis are “good Muslims” precisely because they are—according to many journalists and policymakers—“syncretists,” in other words not “that” Muslim in the eyes of the West. Journalism on Islam in Africa often contrasts the supposedly peaceful, “unorthodox” Sufi with the caricature of the “strict,” “Wahhabi” hardliner who was trained in the Middle East. Journalists and policymakers sometimes imply that too much contact with Arabs will ruin African Muslims, an idea whose genealogy goes back in part to British and French fears about “Islamic political propaganda” undermining their control over places such as Northern Nigeria.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, Washington’s attention often focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan – but when American policymakers’ attention did land on West Africa, there were substantial ambitions not just to dismantle affiliates of al-Qaida (and later the Islamic State) but also to reshape West African Islam as a whole. Many communities, even communities that had shown little propensity to violence, were assumed to be in need of guidance about the meanings and messages of the Qur’an, the proper relationship between Islam and liberalism, and so forth. Efforts at “amplifying moderate voices” are in effect a bid to decide who gets to speak for Islam – “moderate,” after all, is defined in this context by the U.S. government. The CVE agenda faded a bit under the messy policy atmosphere under Trump, but may make a comeback (under whatever name) under Biden.

American policymakers have shown little hesitation about remaking West African Islamic history into images that serve the agendas of the moment. A peak instance of that was then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sokoto, Nigeria, in 2016, where he recast the city’s history as one of (his version of) “equality and tolerance; justice and mercy; compassion and humility.” These are all noble values, but one wonders what Kerry really understood about the violent foundations of what is often called the Sokoto Caliphate, founded by the great scholar Uthman dan Fodio (d. 1817) in the early nineteenth century. Dan Fodio’s scholarship and courage continue to inspire Muslims in Nigeria and around the world, but it is important to take the leader as he was – which would mean, at a minimum, thinking about why he considered some Muslims of his time to be polytheists and unbelievers. One can admire dan Fodio, but it is a stretch to imagine him finding much in common with someone like Kerry. The current Sultan of Sokoto’s willingness to allow himself, and Sokoto’s history, to be tools in the hands of an American Secretary of State also raises uncomfortable questions about how contemporary politics, national and international, creates incentives for Muslim leaders in Africa and elsewhere to fit themselves into boxes built by Western powers. Western binaries – either you are a “violent extremist” or a liberal peacemaker – are inherently confining and in fact seem to inhibit actual peacebuilding. Ummatic thinking, at least in my view, is partly dependent on Muslims’ ability to see each other outside of the binaries and categories that Western states (or any states) seek to impose and reify.

The War on Terror also casts a shadow over theological debates between Muslims in West Africa or among American Muslims who care about, spend time in, or invoke West Africa. Of course it is natural for Sufis, having been called mubtadi‘in, mushrikin, or even kuffar to push back against Salafis vehemently. Yet certain articulations of anti-Salafism can ricochet in dangerous ways in a policymaking environment in which being Salafi theologically is sometimes equated with being a kind of crypto-terrorist. With many Muslim commentators in West Africa arguing that today’s violence is a direct outgrowth of “Wahhabi” preaching in the 1980s, moreover, it can be tempting for certain Muslims and non-Muslims to pile onto that argument – but it is an ultimately simplistic and even misleading argument, given that much militancy appears to respond to political events, human rights abuses, and latent inter-communal tensions, rather than just to “Wahhabi preaching.” One helpful development, in terms of calming the theological debates and their spillover into politics, is that the Sufi-Salafi antagonism that arguably peaked in the 1980s and 1990s in West Africa has started to soften a bit in some quarters. Defending one’s creed, however, still remains a fraught exercise given that powerful non-Muslims have now decided they have a stake in those debates.

The Muslim umma is a singular community but within that population are webs of more specific and historically layered ties. This essay has tried to give one example of this, but there are many other examples—even just in terms of bilateral ties between the American Muslim community (or sections of it) and other, geographically or culturally defined segments of the umma, the list would be very long. All of those bilateral relationships are then shaped by history but also by contemporary politics, both the internal politics of the umma and the political frameworks imposed by forces such as the War on Terror, which can instrumentalize the divisions within the umma. The antidote is, in part, to seek clarity about the real conditions and challenges that Muslims face, including in some very poor and conflict-torn places, but without letting outsiders’ frameworks or even one’s own theological sympathies lead one to simplistic, romantic, or pessimistic perspectives. Ummatic thinking begins with a call or aspiration to global Muslim unity and solidarity but does not end there; webs of more specific relationships between peoples and places, at least when approached in an open-ended way and conceived of as part of that wider whole, can strengthen and enrich the overall goal of unity.

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