The states of Africa south of the Sahara, with their large Muslim populations, certainly are vulnerable to the popular unrest sweeping across North Africa and the Gulf region since January 2011. These states present a “backdoor” opening for radical jihadist Islam, which is already a strong presence in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and, (if Qaddafi lasts) in Libya. With about 25 percent of the world’s Muslim population living in Africa, the overall restrictive economic and political conditions, and an expanding youth population, extrude Islamist ideology as a plausible alternative for self-styled repressed out-groups. Consequently, Sub-Saharan Africa merits more attention for signs of more radical, jihadist Islamism.
Islamism is a political ideology, not an offshoot religious cult. Its strategy ranges from violence as a prime tactic to political militancy, to competitive political parties that seek local or national representation in parliaments or local governments. Islamism may spawn violent jihadi groups that dream of recreating a global Islamic community (umma) or groups attempting to restore ultra-traditionalist, Salafist tenets of Islam, similar to what prevails in Wahabbist Saudi Arabia.
This essay examines both the extent and dynamics of Islamism and radical, violent Islamist groups in Tanzania, the location of the 1998 al Qaeda bombing. Additionally, the piece considers the appeal and spread of Islamist ideology, and the “state of play” today. Tanzania is examined here for the number of Muslims in the population—about a third of the total; for its proximity to the eastern African cockpit of Islamism—Somalia; and for the character of its internal politics, a one party-dominant political system—with the position of its Muslim population emerging as a divisive political issue.
Thus far, Tanzania harbors a low level of Islamist activity compared to, for example, Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt. It is representative of countries in Africa south of the Sahara with significant Muslim populations, whose cooperation is necessary if global jihadist terrorism is to be controlled and overcome. Not least is the problem of spillover of sporadic, small scale wars (Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are western neighbors). Secular nationalism, a lame parliamentary democracy, slow and uneven economic growth, and perceived unequal opportunity permit Muslim Africans, in Tanzania, as elsewhere, to subscribe to an alternative ideology of Islamism.