The Fundamentalist Trap

The terrorist attacks of 7 and 9 January against Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris have caused deep emotions and hurt feelings. Those events were experienced almost live by many Africans via the media. Across Africa fundamentalism allows and justifies unbearable violence. We must have the audacity to denounce it.

by Fatou Sow, International Director of WLUML.

On the 11 January, the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, along with other African and foreigner Heads of State participated in the march that was organized in Paris to protest against the attacks. On his return in Dakar, President Sall was vigorously questioned about his participation. He claimed that in participating in this march, he was expressing his solidarity against terrorism. After vigorous criticism of his attendance by religious leaders and a good part of the Senegalese public opinion not familiar with caricatures, the President banned the publication of the special release of Charlie Hebdo. The edition was perceived as an insult towards Islam.

Demonstrations then took place on the 16 and 23 January in Dakar and other cities. While some people could regret that the attacks were committed in the name of Islam, the crowd was obviously not there “for Charlie”. People were actually holding banners hostile to the caricatures.

The Prime Minister, political and religious leaders, and civil society actors participated at the forefront of the march of 23 January. The marches were quite noisy but very well contained. No incidents were to deplore. The only signs of violence to mention were anti-French slogans and French flags being burned. It is most likely that the President had sent his Prime Minister to legitimate his presence in Paris. The condemnation of the caricatures during the demonstrations seemed like a pretext to challenge secularism, democracy and fundamental liberties. It also went to the extent of proposing a law for the protection of the worship. Is this not a new form of ‘defamation of religion’ law?

In Niger however, whose President also participated in the Paris the march, there were intense acts of violence during their demonstrations, causing the death of a dozen persons. Within two days, some twenty churches were burned, its Christian believers brutalised, buildings and shops ransacked. These acts of violence caused dozens of people to be killed or wounded. The same deplorable acts of violence happened in different Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.

Killed for what and by whom?

We felt touched by these events and were angry for diverse reasons depending on the context, our beliefs and concerns. All the challenges WLUML faces as a network have culminated in the most violent way. Those events occur or come on top of other painful and unbearable events. These include mass murders committed by Boko Haram which is actually laying siege to Maiduguri in Northern Nigeria; executions of demonstrators across the world, and the arrest, trial, convictions and brutal execution of human rights defenders (with or without a trial) of all ages.

As a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa, I could also have mentioned the atrocities committed by the rebellions in the name of religion, manipulated as a political weapon and to which States are responding in the equal violent way. The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, presents itself as a Christian movement. Since 1988, on behalf of God or Jesus, they have perpetrated in Sudan, Eastern Congo, and Central Africa, massacres, abductions of adults, youth and children of either sex to be used as soldiers or slaves.

Since December 2012, the rebels from Seleka labelled “Muslim” and the Anti-Balaka labelled “Christian” are fighting extremely violently for power in Central Africa, causing thousands of deaths. What is there to say about the jihadists from Mali? In 2012, they split the country in two in order to apply iniquitous Muslim laws in the territory they controlled. So many acts of violence were committed during that time in the name of Islam, that the government had to proclaim loud and clear that secularism was a constitutional principle. Under the pressure of very conservative Muslim organisations, the state seriously breached the secularism principle in 2009 by replacing the relatively progressive family code with an ultra archaic Muslim code.

How can we understand these events and determine where the responsibilities lie in an appropriately sophisticated way?

It is extremely useful to take this a little further by going beyond the obvious. Even though colonialism, post-colonialism, imperialism, the West and its modernity have played an important role in those events and therefore undertake a great part of the responsibility, it is too easy to blame them solely. But it appears more difficult to go beyond Islamophobia. Islamophobia indeed exists, but it cannot be used to justify the human rights violations or crimes committed by the extreme-right fundamentalists of our countries and regions.

We cannot pass over in silence or ignore political, religious or cultural ideologies and their dangerous incarnations. The growth of cultural and religious fundamentalism is a daily threat. Too much disruption and persecution is being committed in the name of religion. We all are potential victims. The Islamism that we know has proven during the demonstrations that no matter the circumstances, it will support crimes committed in the name of Islam.

The thousands of victims of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria are experiencing the same fate as the victims of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria during the 1990 Black Decade. A ten year old little girl blew herself up in a market in Maiduguri: she was executed as well as the students who had their throats cut in their dormitory. “Adulterous” couples were stoned to death in Northern Mali while a lot of other people were hunted, martyred, wounded, and killed. The children of Peshawar were executed. The caricaturists of Charlie Hebdo were executed. Asia Bibi in Pakistan and Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir in Mauritania, accused of apostasy, are waiting for their turn.

Fundamentalism allows and justifies unbearable violence. We must have the audacity to denounce it.