"Real religion would never tell anyone to burn anything or kill others. We condemn them (Islamic extremists). And we’re afraid of them," a Malian imam told Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard.
As news breaks of the attempt to destroy a Delta airliner by a Nigerian Muslim the imam’s words seem more pertinent. The New York Times reports the young man’s father was increasingly concerned about his extreme religious views. The characterization of Islam as a religion of violence and intolerance is inaccurate and unrepresentative, but the story will reinforce it anyway.
Brulliard writes that West Africa may be more buffer than gateway for radical religion. Writing from Mali, she points out the nation has long enjoyed a vibrant, open culture and its religious leaders have been moderate.The U.S. has courted Mali with aid and military training in an effort to support this moderation.
My experience working with Muslims in the region affirms this perspective. And I agree that Islam is not a monolith. Just as Christianity and Judaism are expressed in widely different ways, so, too is Islam. It’s inaccurate and a disservice to stereotype these religions by their extremes.
But the imam’s remarks plus Brulliard’s reports of changes occurring among some Malian youth could portend trouble in the future. Across sub-Saharan Africa borders are porous. It’s relatively easy to carry goods from one country to another. In fact, trading caravans are part of an ancient desert mercantile culture. Today, however, Brulliard writes camels have replaced by ATVs and the goods can as easily be weapons or cocaine as salt or bolts of cloth.
Mali, as most of its West African neighbors, is a poor country with a youthful population in touch with the world and aware of its material discrepancies. This mix has been exploited by radical religious clerics to recruit the young. This social context should be of primary attention. Among many youth in West Africa, material deprivation is accompanied by frustration, low self-esteem, lack of opportunity, powerlessness and a sense that forces beyond their control are determining their life’s direction and preventing them from improving their situation.
In this troubled soil the seeds of extremism can be sown by religious radicals. But Islam isn’t the cause. Poverty and its psychological effects are the pre-existing conditions.
Brulliard writes that Mali’s moderate history makes it unlikely radicalism can take root here. I hope that is so. Mali’s neighborhood in West Africa is experiencing instability and governance problems. Mauritania to the west has seen a military coup and Niger to the east retained its government in a disputed election. Cote d’Ivoire to the south is recovering from civil war and Morocco to the northwest is contending with charges of human rights abuses and calls for autonomy in Western Sahara.
It will take good governance, economic development and responsible religious leadership among other things to keep Mali on track. And it is as sure as the desert wind that some in the region would derail it. The imam’s fears are a useful precaution.