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The Islamization of Gambian politics and the risk of being an Islamic Republic

In recent years, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been killed in violent conflicts and many are now faced with hunger in the country’s north. Violence in Nigeria today is often associated with Boko Haram but thousands more have died even in the Plateau State.

Almost a thousand people were killed in Yelwa-Nshar in one month alone leading to reprisals in Kano and some southeastern states but this was not because of Boko Haram; it was a rise in tension between deeply divided Muslims and Christians.

Robert Ruby and Timothy Shah wrote that the importance of that divide is well illustrated by the fact that religion–not nationality– is the way in which most Nigerians choose to identify themselves.

Unlike the world’s newest Islamic State, The Gambia, Nigeria has a population evenly divided between the Christian south and the Muslim north and 76 percent of its Christian population with 91 percent of its Muslim population says that religion is more important to them than their African and Nigerian identities. But in both Nigeria and The Gambia, one will find that the people find great strength in their religious and cultural heritages.

Islamic Sharia law found its way into Nigeria’s legal system in the 1950s. Powerful Muslim politicians in order to entrench themselves propelled the use of Sharia to alienate the Christians in northern state governments. Christians were angered when a Muslim military leader, Ibrahim Babangida in 1986 made Nigeria a part of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Babangida was playing religious politics and in 1992, to appease the Christians, he restored full diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been severed in 1973. Whiles the move gained popular Christian support, it angered many Muslims.

It is undeniable that religion is a source of tension in Nigeria, even when it comes to land use. President Muhammdu Buhari has ordered a military crackdown after a spate of deadly attacks in Nigeria this year blamed on ethnic Fulani cattle herders. In 2014 more than 1,200 people lost their lives and in February’s massacre of some 300 people in central Benue state and last month’s raid in southern Enugu state, where more than 40 were killed, caused outrage across Nigeria. Properties were destroyed and thousands of people forced to flee their homes. The Fulanis are Muslims who established the Sokoto Caliphate in the 1830s.

Because religion has been deeply rooted in Nigeria’s politics, regardless of the origin of dispute, the people tend to find deep faults through religious lines. The same could be said of The Gambia today. Tens of thousands of people have perished in Nigeria from 2002 to 2008 and most recently in Central African Republic because of sectarian violence.

Tensions did not really develop into a major challenge in Nigeria until in the 1970s over the establishment of a federal Sharia court of appeal. This was the first major flashpoint in the country when you had Christians and Muslims really in an open conflict over a very sensitive, symbolic religious issue leading to a civil war.

The Gambia already has Sharia incorporated into its local justice system and a Cadi court that administers Islamic Sharia law. Christians however are not subjected to Sharia law but it is small issues of this nature that leads to conflict.

Unlike the Plateau State crisis that was solved by an Imam and a Pastor, Gambian religious leaders, especially its powerful Supreme Islamic Council, a committee of clerics who studied the strict Wahabi form of Islam from Saudi Arabia have always backed the actions of the country’s President Yahya Jammeh.

Last month, the members of council joined local authorities in an attempt to shut down a Christian cemetery at the entrance of The Gambia’s capital, Banjul. Not until after the Muslim council members left, a spark was nearly ignited between them and the Christian representatives.

President Yahya Jammeh follows in the footsteps of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Amin had declared a jihad to make Uganda an Islamic nation and in April 1978, soldiers broke a church service and arrested 150 Christians.

“In the prison, soldiers welcomed the Christians with whips. Prisoners were locked in a room where it was hard to breathe,” said Rebecca Babirye. “After two months, Amin sent his vice president to the prison. His task was to kill the prisoners. But thankfully, he did not make it there because he was involved in a terrible motor accident.”

Amin gave himself some excruciating titles: “The Pure Son of Africa, His Excellency President for Life, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.”

President Yahya Jammeh who declared The Gambia an Islamic Republic this summer has even an Islamic title “Sheikh.” Sheikh is commonly designated to the ruler of a tribe, who inherits the title from his father at birth and also serves as a title for prominent Islamic leaders or clerics.

President Yahya Jammeh wants to be called Sheikh Professor Dr. Alhagie Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jamus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa; “Babili Mansa,” meaning “King bridge builder” in the local Mandinka language – a self making king who can decide who gets to be buried in the country and claims to have herbal healing powers for AIDS, infertility, asthma and Ebola.

Jammeh earlier dropped an Islamic title bestowed upon him by the Supreme Islamic Council – “Nasirudeen” meaning “sacred character and impressive magnetism.” But just as he quickly dropped that title, so did he rescind an executive order for all female civil servants to have their heads covered whiles at work, an order, which his Arab Moroccan wife may not be able to follow.

In August, Gambian security forces broke off church services in suburbs outside the capital, although no one was arrested, for drumming during the holy month of Ramadan. Gambian authorities banned drumming, which is part of the ways Christians worship the Lord during praise singing in churches and at their events such as confirmations.

President Yahya Jammeh has always used religion in his politics just like the Nigerian politicians of the 1950s who introduced Sharia into the federal legal system but started it from their own states. He has made himself the moral police of the country with the Supreme Islamic Council clerics as his deputies. Those that follow the clerics became enforcers though Jammeh said severally, he has appointed no enforcer.

In the early 2000s, many young girls were beaten to their near deaths for wearing shorts or miniskirts. Imam Abdoulie Fatty gave a ‘fatwa,’ a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority, for girls found wanting to be dealt with by anyone. The beatings caused a public outcry and an outpour of defiance from many young women, leading to the reversal of the decision by President Yahya Jammeh.

But Jammeh’s use of religious bigotry in politics has led to some extremist conversations in public long before his declaration of the country as an Islamic Republic. Christian, Jews and other minority religious groups have been publicly vilified and told they would be “going to hell.”

A cleric, Dr. Baba Ceesay who returned to The Gambia from Saudi Arabia in 2014 called for the public execution of opposition leaders. His reasoning: in Islam, it is not permissible to oppose the leader of Muslims including the President of a Muslim nation. Ceesay is a lecturer at President Jammeh’s Islamic University. Jammeh and his clerics have used religion to justify the jailing, torture, killing and enforced detention of political opponents including opposition leaders, rights campaigners and journalists.

The encouragement of such radical views at the interest of the president may lead The Gambia to the path of Nigeria, where state leaders instead of crushing Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, instead put him on a payroll. Just like many Gambian clerics, Yusuf studied the Wahabi form of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia and deeply believed in what was propelled in the 1950s of northern Islamic states in Nigeria governed by Sharia. It is the same dream that clerics that support Jammeh has to keep benefiting from the presidency instead of having a democracy.

Yusuf has a following just like Imam Abdoulie Fatty, Baba Ceesay or Momodou Lamin Touray. When they fall apart with authorities, jailed or killed for what their disciples see as the ‘wrong reasons,’ they have resentment and seek revenge in the name of strengthening Islam. They get outside support and that’s how nations known for being at peace start their long path to destruction. This was how Abubakar Shekau turned Nigeria’s north into one of the most restive places in the world with support and training from extremist clerics and groups including ISIS.

In 2015, President Yahya Jammeh invited controversial comparative religion televangelist Dr. Zakir Naik to The Gambia, where Naik said “Muslims are more Christians than Christians” during a nationally televised prayer sermon at the presidential palace.

Naik’s visit marked the true transformation of The Gambia to the Islamic Republic it is today and his statement caused anger in the Christian community with the cleric being challenged by Christiana Jatta, a young university Christian student at one of Naik’s public events.

Before Naik left Banjul, he said he had advised President Jammeh to declare The Gambia an Islamic state.

Rightly so, before Naik’s second visit, Jammeh declared The Gambia an Islamic nation with Naik, who is wanted on terrorism-related charges in his native India, declaring himself Mr. Jammeh’s spiritual guide and lying that due to his presence in the country, the Muslim population has grown from 90 percent to 95.

It is the thrusting of such idea with the help of people like Zakir Naik and the ideologies of those like Dr. Baba Ceesay that may push The Gambia towards a deep religious divide that continues to hinder nations like Nigeria, nearly half a century after its Muslim-Christian conflict of the 70s.

It was 20 years after Sharia made its way into the federal legal system in Nigeria that the conflict turned violent. In The Gambia, it will be genocide because the Christian population is right under nine percent. It makes it a matter of urgency to protect the rights and existence of Christians in The Gambia.

The Christian community, situated mostly in the west and south of the country, is predominantly Roman Catholic; there are also several Protestant groups including Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and various small evangelical denominations and members belong to smaller ethnic groups too, which makes it even deadlier, just with Jammeh’s additional use of tribal politics.

Most of the tribes that Christians come from are seen as foreign but The Gambia is a country founded by foreigners. Every tribe comes from somewhere across the Great Empires of West Africa.

Christians continue to be marginalized in The Gambia, although the country’s constitution protects the rights of citizens to practice any religion that they choose. Smaller Muslim sects that do not conform to Sunni Islam such as Shites and Ahmadis also face threats.

“Let me tell you, we will only allow true Islam in this country and there is only one Qur’an. All these other ones will not be accepted. They are here to cause division and we will deal with them,” Jammeh said.

Clerics from the Supreme Islamic Council has called them “infidels” and asked for their expulsion from the country and for the government to bring an end to the propagation of their practice of Islam.

In the Serrekunda neighborhood of Tallinding, the Supreme Islamic Council supported a ban that stopped Ahmadis from burying their dead at Muslim cemeteries and demanded the excavation of an Ahmadi body from a local cemetery. Ahmadis refuse to exhume the dead body forcing the council to rescind its support and called for calm to avoid violence.

Clerics that support Jammeh’s hardline Islamization of politics often give ‘fatwas’ and those that oppose such orders are subjected to arrest, torture and prosecution like imams Bakawsu Fofana, Baba Leigh, and Muhideen Hydara – even if it is for praying on a day other than that which is sanctioned by President Yahya Jammeh.

Gambian authorities have closed Christian schools that refused to teach Islamic courses, forcing them to hire Islamic scholars in order to remain open.

In the mid-2000s, Muslim students at St. Therese School protested the banning of hijab. The students gained the support of the Muslim clerics, even the moderate ones, sparking a debate in the country. The school was temporarily closed and talks were held. Students were later allowed to wear the hijab. There was a sharp increase in the number of young women who started to wear the veil at the time. It was a sort of a new phenomenon in The Gambia and many of the students choose to attend an Ahmadi Muslim school, Nusrat that allowed veils and forces all students, be you Christian or Muslim to have their head tied with a scarf.

With all this, The Gambia is one of Africa’s most peaceful and religious tolerant nations. Even when frowned upon by Muslim leaders, intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is common. It is in this country, where you can find a church and mosque opposite each other, yet everyone is at peace and celebrates each other’s feast, though we have seen a wave of preachers proselytizing against Muslims celebrating Christian feasts.

I am Muslim but my mother and I attended Christian schools to have better lives. The best schools in The Gambia for formal education are Catholic Mission schools. I had a private Islamic teacher who preached even against my family for enrolling us in such a school but his views never overshadow my thoughts of the different religious worlds I have got a chance to see and how they are all Abrahamic – be it Islam, Christianity or Jewish. The Christian schools never closed their doors to Muslims.

Long before Jammeh, Islam found its way into Gambian politics with the establishment of the Muslim Congress Party in pre-independent Gambia. Jammeh was not born yet but using Islam to proliferate a political agenda did not gain the party any popularity and three years before Jammeh was born, in 1962, they abandoned the Islamic propagation to seek political office and merged with the Democratic Party to form the Democratic Congress Alliance.

Both of The Gambia’s presidents went to a school that started as a Christian missionary boys high school. It tells a lot of this country and its interfaith approach. The Gambia could be a model for interfaith living across the world.

But President Jammeh is ignoring the small confrontations as in Nigeria and many Gambians are not putting a stop to it as Ugandans did. He did not also learn from the failure of the Muslim Congress Party or the northern political elites of Nigeria. Nigeria is still not an Islamic state neither is Uganda, but Gambians are not as steadfast and opposing to their rulers like most Africans. They would always “leave it to God.” Jammeh acts like a god: his words are law and supreme to the constitution. Even though The Gambia’s constitution still says the nation of fewer than two million people is a secular state, the country is recognized as and called Islamic Republic of The Gambia by the international community including the United Nations.

Decades after Jammeh is gone, the resentments may still remain and could be costly. Jammeh is using Islam as a way to entice checkbook diplomacy from the Arab and Gulf states. His relations with the Western world has not improved and withholding of aid has caused a sharp economic decline.

Declining with the economy is Jammeh’s popularity and the majority of Gambian voters are Muslim. He is seeking a fifth mandate in December and masquerading himself as a Caliph, holding the Holy Qur’an, dressing in a white gown (as if everyday is Halloween) and accusing Western nations of attacking Islam is his new way of rebranding himself as a man of the people.

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