Magharebia (Washington DC)

North Africa: West Africa, Maghreb Face Same Extremist Threat

Wahhabism is taking root in West and North Africa, warns the head of the Senegal-based Observatory of Extremism and Religious Conflicts.

Magharebia met with Dr. Bakary Sambe to learn more about this "imported ideology" and what must be done to protect Africa.

Magharebia: Is religious extremism a new problem for this region?

Bakary Sambe: Since coming to West Africa, Islam has been in line with the local cultural and social order. It was an Islam known for peacefulness, tolerance and co-existence, and embraced by Sufism.

After the return of African students from Islamic universities in the Middle East, Salafi Wahhabi takfirism slowly started taking root and affecting religious discourse. The proponents of this approach began criticising Sufi orders, considering them heretic and un-Islamic.

Mali, Niger, and Senegal now have a very complicated problem on their hands.

This complex issue is represented by a dual school system: a formal system recognised by the government and a parallel one embraced by private Arab Islamic schools generally not recognised by the state.

The government does not interfere with the curriculum contents of these private schools, nor does it monitor their trends of creed and ideology. It does not know the sources of their financing.

This has facilitated the penetration of Wahhabi and salafi thinking, causing increased radicalism and bringing about conflicts between Sufism and the takfir movements.

Most young Africans who are today part of al-Qaeda are products of this Wahhabi Salafi ideology based on takfir.

Magharebia: Does this mean that peaceful African Sufi Islam is beginning to crumble?

Sambe: Yes, it is being threatened by those who spread radical thinking and by international organisations funded by foreign countries seeking to spread a new Islamic pattern. This new thinking does not fit the customs and openness of Africa and is contrary to what we are used to.

At the same time, West African communities have started importing issues that do not mean anything to them, do not concern them and do not serve their economic or development interests, such as the Wahhabi-Shia conflict.

Senegal for example, after being spared the danger of al-Qaeda, has become threatened in its security. Today we are hearing religious speech supporting al-Qaeda. All of this is part of the consequences of imported ideologies.

Magharebia: So how can the region confront the threat from terrorism?

Sambe: I think that the fight against poverty is key. Employment opportunities must be available to young people. We must ensure social justice and solve the problem of the dual educational system...

We all should understand that we do not have to take everything from Arabs. In some cases, Arabs can benefit from us, such as from African tolerance and how to live in harmony with other civilisations.

Magharebia: What about the Maghreb region?

Sambe: There has to be co-ordination between North and West Africa to counter terrorism.

The radical ideology that led to the demolition of the heritage of the city of Timbuktu is also present in Senegal and all North African countries.

We cannot, unfortunately, set conditions or anticipate the emergence of extremism. In 2011, the phenomenon of suicide of young people by self-immolation started to take place in Senegal.

Whoever does that in despair can also blow himself up with an explosive belt.

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