In November, the Senegalese President Macky Sall spoke to the opening of the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa, where he stated that “we cannot accept models that correspond neither to our conception nor our traditions of Islam…[models] imposed in Africa simply because Africans are poor and there is a need to finance mosques and schools.” This corresponds with a popular narrative that Salafism and Wahhabism — the two terms are often incorrectly glossed — came to West Africa from the outside as an imposition that disrupted previous African Islamic beliefs, and that the subsequent spread of these ideas can be traced to Gulf money and the work of missionary groups like the Jama’at al-Tabligh.There is certainly some truth to these ideas, but they also fail to capture the nuanced and complex history of Islam in Africa, and they also engage in some very problematic ideas of Islam on the continent writ-large.At the same time, directionless analysis that looks for lessons about politics from Emperor Palpatine (but seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?
Chanfi Ahmed’s new book, for instance, demonstrates the role that West African ‘Ulama played in shaping and promoting Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia as well as among African and other non-Saudi populations.
As political scientists Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon noted in their excellent piece on the relationship between pop culture and political science, “It’s as if a thousand editors cried out for clickbait, and no one had the courage to silence them.” Hear hear.
Jackson and Nexon make a series of thoughtful and important points in the article, but the most important is that many of the writers opining about the relationship between fictional worlds and contemporary politics simply transpose a fictional world onto our own in order to reveal some ambiguous, tenuous “lesson” about our daily lives.
One corollary of this governing imperative is not just the distinction between “good” and “bad”, but the idea that the “good” is local, African, and traditional, and that the “bad” is foreign, most commonly associated with the Arab world and particularly the Gulf countries.
While scholars of Islam in Africa have long disputed or critiqued these notions, they remain surprisingly prevalent in popular conceptions of Islam in Africa.
*The UCM’s exact ideological orientation is a bit difficult to characterize, but most scholars characterize them as reformist, and they pushed for moral and educational improvement, the teaching of Arabic, and attacked some common Sufi practices that they characterized as I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m a sucker for the kind of pop culture hot takes that are sucking up an increasing amount of social media oxygen.