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How ‘Islamist’ North Africa will affect Black Africa


Summary: In North Africa ‘Islamist’ parties are steadily seizing power, galvanizing an ideology that until the Arab uprisings remained within the confines of suppressed organizations. The resurgence of Islam as a political force is a revolution in the making, bringing with it changes that may take the world by surprise.

Author Biography: YAHYA SSEREMBA is the founder and editor of Uganda’s unafraid online news publication, www.campusjournal.ug

The term Islamist, like many other terms coined by the west to describe the rest, is purposely misleading. It labels with the aim of demonizing Muslim activists who toil to realize a society in which Islam is a central rather than peripheral player. It creates an impression that an ideal Muslim should be a passive private worshipper who doesn’t mind how much influence Islam wields on society.

The word insinuates that a Muslim is one who treats Islam as a personal affair while an Islamist goes further to take the religion to the public sphere. This categorization has no foundation linguistically and theologically.

From a linguistic point of view, the suffix “ist” in the word Islamist is the English equivalent of the Arabic prefix “Mu” in the word Muslim. Islamist, therefore, should have been an anglicized way of saying Muslim. Whoever invented the term Islamist to mean something other than Muslim must be ignorant of the Arabic language.

The Arabic word closest to Islamist would be Islamiyyah, which means something Islamic. The Islamic University in Uganda, for instance, is known in Arabic as Al-Jamiatu al-Islamiyyah fii Uganda. But this is not the perspective in which the West uses Islamist.

The West uses Islamist to mean an overzealous Muslim who wants society to conduct its affairs in accordance with the guidelines of his religion. This, in the eyes of the inventors of the term, is not the case with a normal Muslim who is no more than a performer of ritual acts of worship such as prayers, fasting and pilgrimage. If this is their understanding, they need to be helped to overcome their naivety.

Anyone who has attained some elementary knowledge of Islam knows that a Muslim is not a mere performer of rituals in the Mosque or Mecca. Instead, Muslims are those who conduct all their affairs, personal or communal, in line with the teachings of the great religion.

Islam, unlike other narrow religions, is a complete way of life that cannot be confined to places of worship. The Prophet Muhammad, the perfect example of a Muslim, didn’t restrict himself to preaching and teaching, nor did he leave society to its own whims and desires. On the contrary, he headed a state, proclaimed a constitution, signed treaties and commanded an army. He established a society in which mischief had no incentives to flourish and in which virtue faced no barricades in its path. One does not need to be anything beyond Muslim to work toward realizing such a society.

One does not need to be extra-Muslim, or Islamist, to choose the Islamic law as the guideline of society. A Muslim is simply a follower of Islam, and Islam means submitting to Allah’s Will. Part of submitting to the Will of Allah is acknowledging His Revelation – the Qur’an and Sunnah – as the arbiter of all affairs. Whoever falls short of acknowledging the Revelation as the arbiter of personal and public affairs falls short of being Muslim, as the Almighty Allah emphatically declares in these successive verses (5: 44 – 50) of the Qur’an:  

Verily, We did send down the Torah [to Moses], therein was guidance and light, by which the Prophets, who submitted themselves to Allah's Will, judged the Jews. And the rabbis and the priests [too judged the Jews by the Torah after those Prophets], for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah's Book, and they were witnesses thereto. Therefore fear not men but fear Me and sell not My Verses for a miserable price. And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the disbelievers.

And We ordained therein for them: "Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal." But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation. And whosoever does not judge by that which Allah has revealed, such are the wrongdoers. 

And in their footsteps, We sent Jesus, son of Mary , confirming the Torah that had come before him, and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirmation of the Torah that had come before it, a guidance and an admonition for the pious. Let the people of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein. And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed (then) such (people) are the rebellious.

And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book (this Qur'an) in truth, confirming whatever Scripture that came before it and a witness over it (old Scriptures). So judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging away from the truth that has come to you. To each among you, We have prescribed a law and a clear way. If Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but that (He) may test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in good deeds. The return of you (all) is to Allah; then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ.

And so judge (you O Muhammad) between them by what Allah has revealed and follow not their vain desires, but beware of them lest they turn you far away from some of that which Allah has sent down to you. And if they turn away, then know that Allah's Will is to punish them for some sins of theirs. And truly, most of men are rebellious.

Do they then seek the judgement of (the Days of) Ignorance? And who is better in judgement than Allah for a people who have firm Faith.

These verses, and many others in the Qur’an, demonstrate the centrality of the Shariah to any community that calls itself Muslim. The Prophet – and after the Prophet the leader of the community – is ordered to judge between his people “by what Allah has revealed.” He is commanded to conduct the affairs of society according to the Divine Doctrine. Anyone who discards the Shariah in favour of manmade laws is variously described in the verses as an unbeliever, a wrongdoer and a rebel who prefers the judgment of Ignorance. 

Some scholars maintain that the unbelief referred to above is of a lesser degree that does not drive one out of the fold of Islam. In our own opinion we would divide leaders who don’t implement God’s Law into three categories and treat them separately. The first are those who fail to judge by Allah’s Law because they lack enough powers to do so. These include the pro-Islam ruling AK Party in Turkey that is constrained by an irreligious military and hostile judiciary. These leaders have no sin because, as the Qur’an states, “Allah doesn’t burden a soul beyond its capacity.” (2:286)

The second category involves leaders who don’t implement the Shariah fearing that a foreign power would topple their governments or impose sanctions on their nations. They don’t dismiss the Islamic system nor do they dispute its supremacy; they are simply too cowardly to execute it. Such leaders commit a sin that is not big enough to drive them out of Islam. Cowardice and neglect of duty are forbidden, but they don’t rank among the sins that nullify ones Islam.

The last and worst group is that of rulers who don’t judge by the Revelation because they believe the Laws of Allah are unrealistic, draconian or archaic. This is the same as saying that God was out of His senses when He made those laws. Whoever entertains this kind of belief is an arrogant kaafir – a total disbeliever who is nowhere near Islam however much they may claim to be Muslim.

In his Nullifiers of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab mentions one of the nullifiers as “the belief that the Guidance of someone other than the Prophet (Muhammad) is more perfect than his Guidance; or that the Ruling of other than the Prophet is better than his Ruling.” In support of ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s observation are leading Muslim scholars of the late 20th Century, including Sheikh ibn Baaz and Sheikh al-Uthaymeen. Allah knows best.

Regardless of who is a Muslim and who is not, the bottom line is that a Muslim ruler is supposed to submit his rule to and judge his people by the Shariah.

If a Muslim, by the very virtue of being Muslim, must acknowledge the Shariah, it follows that the term Islamist is redundant. One is either a Muslim accepting the laws of Islam or a masquerading Muslim dismissing the laws of Islam. The political organizations that have been branded Islamist for seeking the Sharia for their countries are simply being Muslim, and they are doing nothing extra-Muslim to warrant them a new name.

Having exposed the theological, logical and linguistic baselessness of the misnomer Islamist, we wish to variously refer herein to Muslim individuals and organizations pushing for the Shariah simply as Muslim activists, or advocates of Islam.

The rise of Muslim activists

Oppressed and suppressed for generations, religious politicians are steadily gaining momentum following the Arab Spring, winning elections wherever they are held.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda of Egypt and Tunisia, respectively, are still far from gaining effective control, the fact that they trounced secularists in elections tells the direction of their nations. Things have already started changing, especially in Tunisia where until late 2010 any public expression of religiosity, including wearing the headscarf in government premises, was punishable.

A similar restriction on the hijab had devastated the people of Turkey for centuries until the current Muslim activist-led government came to power following a landslide electoral victory in 2002. The military and the judiciary, which remain the greatest obstacles to the total re-Islamisation of Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries shall possibly be infiltrated and subdued with time given the shrewdness that the proponents of Islam have so far demonstrated in accomplishing such tasks.

In Libya, where the advocates of the faith constitute a great fraction of the post-Gaddafi military, the path to Islamisation is likely to be smoother. Similar activists are likewise bit by bit gaining an upper hand in Morocco after their Justice and Development Party won elections late last year.

As tyrants continue falling in other Arab countries, this wave of Islamisation is bound to spread.  Secularism, whether dictatorial or liberal, is facing a difficult time and indeed an uncertain future in such nations. Western propagandists have tried to play down the electoral vitality of Muslim advocates by claiming that the people are voting against the old order rather than voting for religious parties.

This reasoning is silly in many ways. It assumes that the only contestants are the activists of religion and the remnants of the ancien regimes. It doesn’t realize that new secular liberals have taken part in elections and only performed miserably. In Egypt, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Muhammad Morsi not only defeated the military-backed and Mubarak-era prime minster Ahmed Shafik, he also humiliated several ‘progressive’ secularists in the first round, none of whom could even make it to third place.

The reasoning that downplays the popularity of religious politicians, most importantly, does not notice the appeal of Islam as a political force. The voters of the advocates of religion do not vote for the advocates per se; they vote for religion. Islam is the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and all those who present themselves as champions of the faith. Even if one religious party performs poorly in government, the voters would most likely replace it with a better religion-based party than vote for secularists who would suspend God’s Doctrine and impose their own desires on the people. 

How sustainable is this Islamisation project?

Islam as a political force has returned to stay because of two reasons. In the first place, Muslims seem to increasingly understand that their religion is a comprehensive way of life that doesn’t treat politics as a separate entity. As they get exposed to the justice of Islam and to the shortfalls of other systems, they tend to realize that their religion must shape politics rather than it being shaped by the ‘dirty game’. They learn that mischief and exploitation ensue whenever Caesar reigns over God.

The second reason arises out of the lessons that the believers have started learning from the backwardness and humiliation they have suffered for 300 years. Muslims generally believe that their success, not just in the afterlife but also in this world, greatly depends on their loyalty to Allah.

The lack of success is often viewed as a Divine punishment for disobeying the Almighty. In recent centuries the Muslims, once an indomitable world power, have been registering failure after failure, from intellectual stagnation to military regression and from ailing economies to failing states. These setbacks have come to be interpreted by many among them as an outcome of their own deviation from Islam, and have placed the blame largely on themselves.

To overcome the backwardness that has left them at the mercy of their enemies, many Muslims deem it long overdue to return to what they consider as the true teachings of the Prophet.   

The call to return to the true teachings isn’t new; it has always been echoed whenever the believers find themselves in deep trouble. It has however gained unprecedented impetus in the recent past after various versions of secularism failed to salvage Muslims from their problems. In the course of the past century these people have tried socialism, Arab socialism, Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism and despotism, but the results have been disappointing. The post-Cold War capitalist dictatorship has not made matters any better.

These embarrassing failures have reminded the masses of Islam’s heyday when their ancestors followed the religion to the letter and conquered the world. Prominent in calling for the return to pure Islam was Hassan Al-Banna, an Egyptian activist who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.

The Brotherhood waged a spirited campaign against all foreign influences that had infested Egypt and the Muslim world. This effort attained a pivotal boost in the popular books of Sayyid Qutb, who, in his Milestones, went further to suggest how governments that didn’t implement the Shariah should be overthrown. For that he was hanged in 1966 by Egyptian tyrant Jamal Abdul-Nasser.

But by no means did his execution stop the call. Today this message appears to have reached enough people to cause change, albeit gradually. As long as the people remain convinced that they need Islam to overcome their problems, political power shall always rotate among organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, whose slogan is “Islam is the Solution.”  

This emerging Muslim world order is bound to have consequences that will by far transcend the boarders of that part of the globe. Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly, will be greatly affected given its proximity to the center of this order.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the emerging Muslim world order

Despite the conflict in the Sudan, relations between Arab Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have generally been friendly, with both sides joining hands in the days of Jamal Abdul-Nasser and Kwame Nkurumah to fight colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Muammar Gaddafi took these ties to even greater heights, aiding anti-racist struggles in South Africa and arming self-styled liberation movements of Museveni in Uganda and other guerillas in West Africa. Gaddafi’s philanthropic behavior continued warming this North-South comradeship.  Surely, the fall of the Libyan strongman and neighboring tyrants didn’t amuse fellow autocrats south of the Sahara.

President Museveni of Uganda, despite himself being an American puppet, passionately castigated anti-Gaddafi rebels for allowing themselves to be used by the West. Gaddafi was replaced by people who stated Libya would base her laws on Islam, further irritating the Ugandan tyrant who has spent the whole of his life fighting the monotheistic religion.

Besides irritating anti-Islam maniacs like Museveni, the rise of religious governments in North Africa means a lot to the rest of Africa. Politically, the Muslim ideology is likely to move southward, especially to countries with majority or significant Muslim populations of West Africa. The success of religious politicians in Arabia may inspire similar activists in countries like Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone and even Tanzania in East Africa.

Muslim political activism is not unfamiliar in sub-Saharan Africa. Half of Nigeria is already under the Shariah. In 1992, the Kenyan government prevented the registration of the Kenyan Islamic Party, whose goal was to end the political marginalization of Muslims that the country had known since colonial era. Whether this organization had an Islamisation agenda is debatable.

Still in 1992 the Muslims of Tanzania, tired of what they viewed as the religious bigotry of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi party, formed the Civic United Front (CUF) to make their voice heard. Whether this party, which enjoys absolute support in the Muslim islands of Zanzibar, has a secret Islamisation agenda is another matter of speculation.

In 1996 a group of Ugandan Muslim activists formed the Justice Forum (Jeema) party which, like the CUF and KIP, sought to end the political marginalization of Muslims. But unlike the Kenyan and Tanzanian parties, Jeema didn’t emerge to seriously contest for power; it came with one short-term goal, and that was to inspire Muslims to contest for political leadership.

Following a century of colonial and post-colonial state-orchestrated religious discrimination, the Muslims of Uganda had developed an inferiority complex that limited their public participation. The founders of Jeema reasoned that a Muslim presidential candidate would stimulate this dormant community into realizing its leadership potential and drive it to run for political offices through political parties each preferred. With this objective realized, Jeema’s founding fathers considered dissolving the party in 2008 but failed to convince the rest of the members. The achievement of its original sole objective explains why Jeema has failed, apparently deliberately, to grow.

Though the party has failed every test except survival, its founding members, notably Imam Idi Kasozi and Dr. Abasi Kiyimba, have continued advocating for Muslims interests, working closely with other activists in Sudan and the wider Arab world. It’s this link that they maintain with Arab activists that probably prompted preeminent Islamic Studies professor, Badru Kateregga, to conclude that Jeema is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Surely the Brotherhood, in its long-term plan of restoring a worldwide Muslim government known as the Caliphate, did create branches in many countries, including the ruling National Congress Party in Sudan, Justice and Development Party in Libya, Hamas in Palestine, Al-Member Islamic Society in Bahrain, Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Harakat al-Islah in Somalia, among others. But there is no evidence proving that the Cairo-based organization extended up to Uganda.

Nevertheless, Ugandan religious activists, most of whom are Jeema founders operating under the name of the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly, share one bed with their counterparts in North Africa. With the Brotherhood in charge of one of Africa's most powerful countries, similar activist groups and individuals in the South should by now be celebrating, expecting more resources from abroad. A top Jeema official told me that the party intends to write to Muhammad Morsi, the new Egyptian President, not only to congratulate him for his triumph, but also to seek for an alliance with him and generally with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Should such an alliance materialize, it would boost the fortunes of Jeema and other religion-linked parties in the South. A Muslim activist-dominated North would equally not keep a blind eye to the oppression of fellow believers that some southern tyrants have made a job. President Museveni’s government, in the name of fighting terrorism and the ADF, has a habit of detaining Muslims and torturing or even killing them in secret chambers known as safe houses. Should it persist in its murderous behavior, Kampala should brace itself for possible confrontation with Cairo.

Outside politics, a religious North is likely to intensify the propagation of religion in the South. Support to the Daawa, or call to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally come from the Arabian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where Salafi-leaning monarchs reign. This explains the rapid spread of the Salafi interpretation of Islam, known in Uganda as the Tabligh.  The Gulf has facilitated religious schools, trained and even paid teachers and preachers and constructed mosques in much of the world, including Africa.

Secular North African countries, apart from training sheikhs at learning centers such as al-Azhar, had done little to strengthen Islam beyond their boarders. The only Arab secular leader who worked hard to support the faith outside his country was Muammar Gaddafi, as the magnificent Gaddafi Mosque in Kampala testifies.

Sudan, which for long was the only religious activist-led government in Arab Africa, has, despite its own poverty, extended considerable support to Muslims in many countries through its charity organization, Munazzamat Daawat al-Islamiyyah. The Sudanese are also instrumental in providing free religious and non-religious university education to their brethren from all over the world.

As other religion-driven governments emerge, such pro-Islam campaigns are likely to multiply in Africa and in the rest of the world, building confident, active and assertive Muslim communities.



0 #1 Thomas Batsumi 2012-07-10 02:38
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