MasterwebNews 22/1/17: Creating Frankenstein: Saudi Arabia`s ultra-conservative footprint in Africa

[ Masterweb Reports: Annotated remarks at Terrorism in Africa seminar By James M. Dorsey, Singapore 18 January, 2017. ] - There is much debate about what spurs political violence. The explanations are multi-fold. There is one aspect that I’d like to discuss tonight as it relates to Africa and that is the role of Saudi Arabia. Let me be clear: With the exception of a handful of countries, none of which are in Africa, Saudi Arabia, that is to say the government, the religious establishment and members of the ruling family and business community, does not fund violence.

 

It has however over the last half century launched the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, pumping up to $100 billion dollars into ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.[1] That campaign has succeeded in making ultra-conservatism a force in Muslim religious communities across the globe. It involves the promotion of an intolerant, supremacist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam that even where it rejects involvement in politics creates an environment that in given circumstances serves as a breeding ground, but more often fosters a mindset in which militancy and violence against the other is not beyond the pale.

 

What that campaign has done, certainly in Muslim majority countries in Africa, is to ensure that representatives of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism have influence in society as well as the highest circles of government. This is important because contrary to widespread beliefs, the Saudi campaign is not primarily about religion, it’s about geopolitics, it’s about a struggle with Iran for hegemony in the Muslim world. As a result, it’s about anti-Shiism and a ultra-conservative narrative that counters that of Shiism and what remains of Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary zeal.

 

The campaign also meant that at times resolving the question whether the kingdom maintains links to violent groups takes one into murky territory. Again, I want to be clear, certainly with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere, and even before with the emergence of Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia has made countering jihadism a cornerstone of its policy. That is however easier said than done.

 

What is evident in Africa is that the kingdom or at least prominent members of its clergy appear to have maintained wittingly or unwittingly some degree of contact with jihadist groups, including IS affiliates. What I want to do in the time I have is anecdotally illustrate the impact of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism on three African states – Nigeria, Niger and Mali – and how this at times relates to political violence in the region.

 

Let’s start with Nigeria. One of the earliest instances in which Saudi Arabia flexed its expanding soft power in West Africa was in 1999 when Zamfara, a region where Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram has been active, became the first Nigerian state to adopt Sharia. A Saudi official stood next to Governor Ahmed Sani when he made the announcement. Freedom of religion scholar Paul Marshall recalls seeing some years later hundreds of Saudi-funded motorbikes in the courtyard of the governor’s residence. They had been purchased to enforce gender segregation in public transport. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the religious and cultural attaché at the Saudi embassy in Abuja declared in 2004 that the kingdom had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria “with delight.”[2]

 

Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, local politicians in Zamfara were forging an opportunistic alliance with Saudi Arabia. If geopolitics was the Saudi driver, domestic politics was what motivated at least some of their local partners. Nonetheless, the lines between militant but peaceful politics and violence were often blurry. Political violence analyst Jacob Zenn asserts that Boko Haram even has some kind of representation in the kingdom.[3] A Boko Haram founder who was killed in 2009, Muhammad Yusuf, was granted refuge by the kingdom in 2004 to evade a Nigerian military crackdown. In Mecca, he forged links with like-minded Salafi clerics[4] that proved to be more decisive than his debates with Nigerian clerics who were critical of his interpretation of Islam.[5]

 

Once back in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, Yusuf built with their assistance a state within a state centred around the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque and a compound in the city centre on land bought with the help of his father-in-law. Yusuf’s group had its own institutions, including a Shura or advisory council, a religious police force that enforced Islamic law, and a rudimentary welfare, microfinance and job creation system.[6]

 

It operated under a deal struck in talks in Mecca brokered by a prominent Salafi cleric between a dissident Boko Haram factional leader identified as Aby Muhammed and a close aide to former Nigerian President Jonathan Goodwill.[7] Under the agreement Yusuf pledged not to preach violence and to distance himself from separatist groups, an understanding he later violated. Boko Haram has further suggested that before joining IS, it had met with Al Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia.[8] Moreover, a Boko Haram operative responsible for attacking a church in Nigeria reportedly spent months in Saudi Arabia prior to the attack.[9]

 

Yusuf’s religious teacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, presided over a popular mosque in the Nigerian city of Kano that helped him build a mass audience. Adam’s popularity allowed him to promote colleagues, many of whom were also graduates of the same university in Medina, who became influential preachers and government officials. Adam was liberally funded by Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, a London-based charity with ties to Saudi Arabia[10] that has repeatedly been accused by Nigerian intelligence a British peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, of having links to Boko Haram and serving as a platform for militant Islamic scholars.[11] Al Muntada, which operates a mosque and a primary school in London, has denied the allegations while a UK Charity Commission investigation failed to substantiate the allegations. Kenyan and Somali intelligence nonetheless suspected Al-Muntada of also funding Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, Al Shabab.[12]

 

Among scholars hosted by Al Muntada are Mohammad Al Arifi, a Saudi preacher who argues that “the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honour for the believer.” He also reasons that the Muslim world would not have suffered humiliation had it followed “the Quranic verses that deal with fighting the infidels and conquering their countries say that they should convert to Islam, pay the jizya poll tax, or be killed.”[13]

 

Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi academic, is another Al Muntada favourite. Al-Fawzan advises the faithful that “if (a) person is an infidel, even if this person is my mother or father, God forbid, or my son or daughter; I must hate him, his heresy, and his defiance of Allah and His prophet. I must hate his abominable deeds.”[14] Organizationally, the charity also maintained close ties to major Saudi funding organizations, including the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation,[15] a Saudi governmental non-nongovernmental organization that was shut down in the wake of 9/11 because of its jihadist ties.

 

Adam publicly condemned Yusuf after he took over Boko Haram. In response Yusuf in 2007 order the assassination of Adam, a protégé of the Saudi-funded Izala Society (formally known as the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah), which sprang up in northern Nigeria in the late 1970s to campaign against Sufi practices and has since gained ground in several West African states. Much like Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism’s relationship to jihadism, Izala after spawning Boko Haram became one of its main targets. The group has since the killing of Adam gunned down several other prominent Saudi-backed clerics.

 

Nigerian journalists and activists see a direct link between the influx of Saudi funds into Yusuf’s stomping ground in northern Nigeria and greater intolerance that rolled back the influence of Sufis that had dominated the region for centuries and sought to marginalize Shiites. “They built their own mosques with Saudi funds so that they will not follow ‘Kafirs’ in prayers& they erected their own madrasa schools where they indoctrinate people on the deviant teachings of Wahhabism. With Saudi petro-dollars, these Wahhabis quickly spread across towns & villages of Northern Nigeria… This resulted in countless senseless inter-religious conflicts that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Nigerians on both sides.” said Shiite activist Hairun Elbinawi.[16]

 

Adam started his career as a young preacher in Izala, a Salafist movement founded in the late 1970s by prominent judge and charismatic orator Abubakr Gumi who was the prime facilitator of Saudi influence and the rise of Salafism in northern Nigeria. A close associate, Gumi represented northern Nigeria at gatherings of the Muslim World League starting in the 1960s, was a member of the consultative council of the Islamic University of Medina in the 1970s and was awarded for his efforts with the King Faisal Prize

 
html add here