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Islamic leadership across Africa: From Nigeria’s Shekau to Mali’s Imam Dicko

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: In search of new African leadership

By Laurent De Saint Perier
Posted on Thursday, 3 December 2020 11:14, updated on Tuesday, 5 January 2021 18:17

muslims africa
Followers of the Senegalese Mouride brotherhood, an order of Sufi Islam, films with his attend Muslim Friday prayers at West Africa's largest mosque the Massalikul Jinaan, in Dakar, Senegal. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

From the holy founders of Sufi brotherhoods to jihadist preachers, not to mention Islamic savants and charlatans, every religious leader on the continent is a product of their predecessors.

While Imam Mahmoud Dicko makes and unmakes presidents in Mali, in Nigeria, people keep an eye out for the few and far between rants delivered by Shekau, the Takfiri leader of Boko Haram. In Senegal, Imam Dame Ndiaye calls on thousands of his fellow citizens to protest cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad and, in the Sahel, where armed groups have taken over, sermons recorded by the evasive Amadou Koufa are fostering a jihadist fervour in Morocco, a movement that Ahmed Abadi, “preacher to the king”, is tasked with fighting, armed with words.

They are all rooted in Islam, but they often have opposing goals. Religion remains a powerful mobilising force in an era of globalisation, a reference point for identities in crisis. And it remains one of the few routes by which citizens living in authoritarian states can challenge the political order.

Charismatic figures

Through satellite television and the internet, Islamic leaders are seen and heard in millions of households today. Going back as far as the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, African Islam has been animated by an array of figures, whether charismatic, comforting, exhilarating, anti-establishment or conservative.

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From the holy founders of Sufi brotherhoods to the zealous preachers of West African jihadist empires, not to mention the Islamic savants at universities as far afield as Timbuktu, Fes, Tunis and Cairo, and uneducated charlatans, all of these religious leaders stand on the shoulders of those who came before.

In Algeria, four figures stand out to illustrate the broad spectrum of Islamic teachings present in Africa today. Representing traditional Islam, Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, Sufi master of the Alawiya Sufi Tariqat preaches his message of peace and tolerance all the way to Europe, dressed in a suit and tie. The more official version of Islam is represented by the venerable Abou Abdessalam, whose public television presence gives voice to Malekite doctrine.

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Imam Muhammad Ali Ferkus mans the minbar for the Salafi movement, never missing an opportunity to rail against political dissenters or feminist activists on his website. Sheikh Chamseddine, known as Chamsou, famous for his unusual, sexism-tinged fatwas, is idolised like a rock star and regularly banned from the air because of his pronouncements.

Though the exercise of professing Islamic teachings imparts a certain charisma bordering on grace, many popular preachers bring other techniques into the mix to appeal to their followers. Conspiracy theories, political criticism and the denunciation of the West, globalisation and “false believers” are cultivated by fans of aggressive verbal tactics as a way to elevate their standing as the sole bearers of Truth.

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The Senegalese academic Seydi Diamil Niane offers up the unsophisticated Sheikh Oumar Diagne as one such example, who “sets himself apart by calling people freemasons very liberally and without evidence”. Another rising star, the Salafi leader Oumar Sall, “goes after the very foundations of the Sufi brotherhoods, particularly the Tijāniyyah and the Mouride, something that no Salafi has ever done before”.

Political mediator

In Mali, Imam Dicko has managed to make a name for himself as a political mediator, as he played a decisive role in overthrowing the then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020.

READ MORE Mali: ‘Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is still my brother’, says Mahmoud Dicko

For Bakary Sambe, director of the Dakar-based Timbuktu Institute, Dicko is a crowning example of a successful leader who derives his legitimacy from his statements on religion, but whose anti-establishment rhetoric, primarily political, unites a range of groups: “During the protests, he emphasised topics centred around widely-shared frustrations without bringing religion into it. This is how he was able to mobilise a group as diverse as the top brass of the anti-free-market and counter-hegemonic left as well as brotherhood followers and Islamists. This kind of Islamic-nationalist and anti-establishment rhetoric is mobilising a growing number of people in the Sahel, where the barriers separating traditional Islam from political Islam are starting to collapse.”

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Another trend is the growing influence of local figures who are better acquainted with the concerns of their fellow citizens and tech-savvy. Transnational networks, such as those of the Salafi Madkhalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, have rather effective national ties, while the popularity of regional stars, like Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, known for his programme on Al Jazeera, is on the decline. Al-Qaradawi is currently banned from television in Egypt and Tunisia.

When there’s a spiritual leadership vacuum, it can bring out the worst in people.

Nevertheless, the golden age of televangelists has passed down its communication tactics to the latest generation of preachers. “In the 1990s,” says social anthropologist Sophie Bava, “these evangelists moved away from delivering abstract, impersonal sermons, to preaching in a way that was more compassionate, accessible, emotional, factual, and in step with current events and their audiences’ expectations. In fact, they borrowed heavily from the playbook of American televangelists.”

So much so that Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, a pure product of Al-Azhar religious doctrine, can be described as a “Muslim televangelist”, as his style and enthusiasm, down to his attire, parody that of well-known American pastors.

Converting followers on Facebook

The modern age has ushered in another kind of charisma, one that is darker and more insidious, flourishing in secret on social media and sustaining itself by targeting people from the lowest social strata.

By creating media buzz, posting extreme video content and converting followers via Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, Islamic State recruiters have managed to get thousands of young North Africans to join the jihadist fight in Syria.

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All of the scholars we spoke with agree that extremist rhetoric has found a growing audience due to the breakdown in passing on traditional practices which, on the one hand, no longer know how to meet the needs of the young, globalised generation, and, on the other hand, are being abandoned when people emigrate.

To be sure, the inherited baraka (charisma) of the leader of the brotherhood continues to be revered, and figures such as Serigne Mountakha Mbacké, caliph of the Mouride brotherhood, in Senegal, retain their powerful social and political influence.

A follower of the Senegalese Mouride brotherhood, an order of Sufi Islam, prays during Muslim Friday prayers at West Africa’s largest mosque the Massalikul Jinaan, in Dakar, Senegal. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

“The Mouride brotherhood adapted itself alongside the wave of migration in the 1970s by dispatching travelling sheikhs to the diaspora community. In return, these sheikhs, who maintain ties with the diaspora population, gained worldly experience, opening up the brotherhood to the modern age. In Burkina Faso and Mali, the brotherhoods were a lot less well placed and equipped to deal with jihadist propaganda,” says Bava.

As the famed Sheikh Bentounes tells us, the must-have traits of a charismatic spiritual leader are presence, attentiveness and the capacity to serve: “Adults continue to respect sheikhs, but as for the younger generation, we are trying to understand them and to speak to them in a language they recognise, and to get across to them that our tradition is a beacon for the present and the future. People come to me looking for direction and hope in these uncertain times. When there’s a spiritual leadership vacuum, it can bring out the worst in people.”

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