Cablegate: Islam in Niger: Slow Motion Cultural Change

DE RUEHNM #1193/01 2991354
R 261354Z OCT 06





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. 05 NIAMEY 1434


1. (U) This is the first in a series of cables examining the
changing nature of Islam in Niger and its implications for
the world's least developed Muslim democracy. Emboffs' recent
travel to Maradi - a key trading center on the Niger/Nigeria
border in the heart of "Hausaland" - and our examination of a
Democracy and Human Rights Fund (DHRF) financed study on
Democracy and Islam in Niger serve as a base for some
preliminary inquiries into this subject. As the most heavily
(98%) Muslim country in sub-Saharan Africa, and a young
democracy characterized by weak institutions and pressure
group politics, Niger makes an interesting place to pose some
fundamental questions: to what extent can a modern, global
movement like fundamentalist (or self-styled "reform") Islam
gain ground in a pre-modern, isolated, and strongly
provincial country? Are Nigeriens, by virtue of their strong
attachments to local traditions and mores, Sufi chiefs and
marabouts, immune to a pan-Islamic identity that takes its
cues from the Persian Gulf and Nigeria? Does a sense of
national identity and loyalty to the secular nation-state
trump the cross border ethnic ties that bind Nigerien Hausas,
Arabs, and Tuaregs to the cultures of Nigeria and the
Mahgreb? Finally, to what degree is reactionary,
fundamentalist Islam linked to some of the forces that
otherwise seem poised to modernize Nigerien life -
international trade and travel, a free-market economy, and
access to mass media?

2. (U) This cable is a scene-setter for these and other
inquiries. Septels will explore the above, and related issues
including: the development of fundamentalist "Izalay" Islam
in Niger; its relationship with older, more organic and
moderate forms of Sufi Islam; the implications of this "slow
motion cultural change" on issues ranging from local politics
to women's rights, democracy, and perceptions of the US; and,
the development of a "pan-Islamic" identity in a country
known for its provincialism and isolation. Post elicits
readers' views of other profitable avenues of inquiry. END

--------------------------------------------- -----
--------------------------------------------- -----

3. (SBU) Recent travel by Emboffs' to the southern city of
Maradi, Niger's most vibrant trade center, yielded a snapshot
of religious divisions and change along the Niger / Nigeria
border. Maradi is the door through which much of Niger /
Nigeria trade flows. At least 40% of Niger's foreign trade is
conducted with Nigeria (a figure including informal trade
flows would likely be much higher) and it is the Hausa
speaking areas on both sides of the border that account for
this. That cultural commonality also ensures that much of the
local seasonal labor flow ("exode") from Niger is directed
toward Nigeria. People and ideas cross this border with
frequency and ease. Local contacts in the Islamic community
report an interesting recent phenomenon: the annual movement
of thousands of young Nigerien men toward the old Islamic
teaching centers of Kano and Zaria, Nigeria. This is exode
with a religious rather than economic inspiration - the young
men seek out Koranic teachers in Northern Nigeria with the
hope of returning home as successful and popular marabouts.

4. (U) The fundamentalist Islam of Northern Nigeria is being
imported by trade and teaching, economic migration and
cultural emulation. It lends more diversity to an already
vibrant local religious scene characterized by three other
schools: Tidjaniya, Shefu Dan Fodio / Qadiriyya, and Shi'a.
Layered over each other, these older sects illustrate Islam's
evolution and its relationship to local history, class, and
ethnic loyalty. The sects' competition for adherents has led
to rapid growth in the number of madrassas in Maradi - the
number currently stands at 150 - but this has not had as
profound an effect on public educational standards as one
might expect. Far from teaching a hidebound curriculum of
Koranic memorization and recitation, local contacts report
that Maradi's madrassas conform to the Government of Niger's

NIAMEY 00001193 002 OF 005

(GON) educational standards. Content and pedagogy are
conceived, taught, and evaluated by the Ministry of
Education. The only real difference is language - the
madrassas are Arabic medium schools, while the GON's public
schools are French medium. In this way, Niger's adherence to
the "French model" of strong central government control sets
the country apart from neighbors where madrassas are left to
their own devices, with predictable pedagogical consequences.

5. (U) The turn toward madrassa education in Maradi can be
partly explained by the collapse of the secular public school
system, which lost funding and teachers to bankruptcy and
retirement in the turbulent 1990s. It can also be explained
by Nigeriens' traditional reluctance to embrace the secular
public schools imposed on them, first by the French, and then
by the authorities of the country's own secular governments.
The first independent Islamic Association formed after
democratization in the early 1990's, the Association
Nigerienne pour l'Appel et la Solidarite Islamique (ANASI),
made Islamic education its goal. Through support for
madrassas, radio stations, and public education sessions for
adults raised in the country's secular school system, the
ANASI attempted to reintroduce Islam into education. In so
doing they presented Nigeriens with a vision of education
that conformed to their values. A similar promise seems to
draw Maradi parents toward the madrassas.

--------------------------------------------- ----
--------------------------------------------- ----

6. (U) Tidjaniya is the oldest and most popular sect in
Maradi. Its local leader is Shefu Dan Jiratawa. The name
derives from the sect's 18th century Algerian-born founder,
Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad al-Mukhtar al-Tijani. In Niger,
Tidjanis follow the Sheikh of Kiota, who was both the student
and son-in-law of Tidjaniya's 20th century spiritual leader,
the Senegalese Sheikh Ibrahim Niass. Tijaniya is classically
Sufi, with an emphasis on saints, relics, and the authority
of traditional chiefs and Marabouts. Many of the latter are
thought to possess magical powers, a belief deemed heretical
by fundamentalists, but one that suggests the means by which
Tidjaniya co-opted the traditional faith healers or "witch
doctors" of the animist past. Nigeriens are recent (18th and
19th century) converts to Islam, and it was Tidjaniya, with
its mysticism and magic, to which most of them were first
converted. Tidjaniya Islam makes some claims reminiscent of
the pre-reformation Roman Catholic Church: that the Koran can
only be read in Arabic, and must be interpreted for laymen by
trained and literate Imams; that authority derives from these
Imams and the traditional chieftaincy; that elaborate and
costly rituals such as weddings, funerals, and naming
ceremonies are essential to the faith; and, that relics and
saints' tombs have healing powers. When one thinks of
syncretistic African Islam, one is thinking of Tijaniya.

7. (U) Women enjoy a much more public role in Tidjania than
in more fundamentalist sects. The present Sheikh of Kiota's
mother, Oumoulkheir Niass (wife of the former Sheikh, and the
daughter of Tijaniya spiritual leader Sheikh Ibrahim Niass)
runs an Islamic Women's association know as Jamiyat
Asaru-Addine. This active association affords Tidjaniya women
a public role and a level of parity with men that is not
often replicated in Nigerien Muslim society. While the
Jamiyat concentrates on women's empowerment and women's role
in maintaining the faith, Oumoulkheir also runs an Islamic
women's school - the Al Islami Kiota.

8. (U) Tidjaniya is the religion of mainstream political
power in Niger. The vast majority of traditional chiefs and
established Marabouts adhere to it. Niger's first military
leader, Gen. Seyni Kountche (1974-1987) was a devout Tidjani,
who was closely advised by a Mr. Bonkano - simultaneously a
Tidjani Marabout and head of the secret police. Col. Ibrahim
Mainassara Bare (1996-1999) was another Tidjani. A devotee of
the Sheikh of Kiota, he had a paved road constructed to link
the Sheikh's isolated small village to the main national
highway. Each year, that small village welcomes
tens-of-thousands of pilgrims from across the country who
gather there to celebrate Mouloud, the Prophet's birthday, in
a display of the vernacular Islam so typical of Niger and the
Tijaniya order.

NIAMEY 00001193 003 OF 005


9. (U) The global fundamentalist movement Wahabiyya finds
its West African expression in something known as
Izalat'bid'a - "the exclusion of all that is superfluous" - a
fair summation of the group's literalist, textual approach to
the faith. "Izala" Islam originated in Nigeria in the
mid-1970's, when Aboubacar Gumi, the Grand Kadi of that
country's Sharia Court of Appeals, began to advocate "reform"
in Sufi dominated Northern Nigeria. The creation of the
Jama'a Izalatil Bid'a wa Iqamatus Sunnah (Movement against
Negative Innovations and for Orthodoxy) in 1978 marks the
formal starting point of the Izala movement in Nigeria. It
made its initial inroads into Niger as early as 1982, and has
expanded its reach since. Its primary objective is similar to
that of the 19th century Quadiriyya crusader Ousmane Dan
Fodio - to convert Muslims and the society in which they live
to a purer and more textually accurate version of the faith.
NOTE: Post anticipates providing a more extensive examination
of Izala Islam's history and tenets septel END NOTE.

10. (U) Izala's appeal to the young, the Nigeria returned,
and certain major businessmen and professionals has made it
the fastest growing sect in Maradi over the last decade. Its
local leader and spokesman, Rabe Dan Tchadouwa, is a
prominent businessman with commercial ties to the Middle East
and Nigeria. Dan Tchadouwa and other smaller players finance
the construction of mosques, madrassas, and, increasingly,
the provisioning of social welfare activities. Local contacts
report that the Izala community has formed groups of young
men, given them distinctive green uniforms, and put them in
charge of security and crowd control at the sect's mosques
during Friday prayers. Speaking to the diversity of their
engagements as well as the depth of their pockets, local
contacts noted that, had the USG not financed the popular
CARE Maradi Youth Center, the Izalas probably would have done
something similar in our stead. NOTE: The CARE Maradi Youth
Center is partly funded by the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism
Partnership (TSCTP). It trains unemployed young people for
jobs realistically available in the Maradi economy, and gives
them the microcredit financing necessary to start their own
businesses. It also organizes them into mutually supportive
groups that teach others about HIV/AIDS, democracy, and
political participation. END NOTE

11. (SBU) USAID officer, drawing on 30 years of periodic
experience in Niger, noted that the number of bearded men and
veiled women in Maradi has increased. Traditionally,
Nigeriens did not sport beards and hijabs in the Izalay
fashion. Local contacts familiar with the Izalay indicate
that the sect is divided over fine points of dress and
doctrine, including ideal beard length, pant leg-length (the
idea being that long pants touch the dirt and therefore
render the wearer unclean for mosque services), and other
seemingly minor matters. COMMENT: One wonders how many
Nigeriens have the time or the resources to maintain the
exact sartorial standards demanded by some adherents of
Izalay. The movement's origins in the urban, middle-class
trader community are reflected in such preoccupations. No one
else has the resources necessary to support the sequestration
of women - whose labor is essential to rural Niger's
subsistence economy - or the obsessive attention to personal
attire and grooming that some Izalay Imams demand. END


12. (U) There is nothing new about Islamic reform movements
designed to purge West African Islam of its organic
"superfluities." Izalat'bid'a's textualism and emphasis on a
return to Koranic fundamentals brings to mind the "Jihad" of
Shefu Ousmane Dan Fodio, who brought a measure of both
political and spiritual stability to northern Nigeria and
southern Niger in the aftermath of the Songhai Empire's
collapse. The Songhai Empire's successor chieftaincies were
politically incoherent, and the brand of Islam practiced in
their palaces, while broadly within the Sufi tradition,
included many unorthodox practices. Islamic laws limiting

NIAMEY 00001193 004 OF 005

polygamy and addressing prayer, inheritance, and governance
were ignored. An accretion of organic practices led to an
"impure" version of the faith. From 1804-1812, Dan Fodio and
his followers led a successful "jihad" to purify the Muslim
faith and establish a political system that would enable
"true belief and right practice." The end result was the
establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria and
the imposition of a more rigorous, though still Sufi, version
of the faith.

13. (U) This Qadiriyya jihad set the tone for Islamic
practice for the better part of a century. Ousmane Dan Fodio
is still revered by many Nigeriens, who name mosques and
streets after him. Interestingly, Maradi was one of the small
kingdoms that held out against the Qadiriyya Sokoto Caliphate
in the early 19th century. But what force of arms did not
accomplish, trade and cultural exchange among the Hausa
populations of the sub-region did. The Qadiriyya Islam that
Dan Fodio encouraged played a major role in other parts of
Niger throughout the 19th century, before declining to a more
marginal status in the 20th.


14. (U) Qadiriyya is Sufi sect similar in most of its
outward forms to Tidjaniya. It is the oldest order in West
Africa, but of less consequence in Maradi than Tidjania or
Izalay. Qadiriyya derives its name from its 13th century
founder, the Iraq-born cleric Abdu-l-qadir al-jilani. While
Qadiriyya enjoyed some early inroads in Niger via Dan Fodio's
jihad and subsequent assimilation, it declined throughout the
20th century as Tidjaniya sects took more and more of its
members. Among the Sufi sects Qadiriyya boasts the largest
number of holy ascetics. This detachment from material
possessions and earthy concerns distinguishes Qadiriyya from
both Tidjaniya - with its emphasis on lavish ceremony - and
Izalat'bid'a, with its emphasis on effecting change and
reform among believers and within the society they inhabit.

15. (U) Shi'a Islam is minor force in Maradi, as it is
elsewhere in Niger. Abdoulmalik and Rabiou Miko are the Shi'a
leaders, both in Maradi and for the country as a whole. Shi'a
boast a single mosque in Niamey and one in Maradi, and
generally maintain cordial relations with other Muslims.


16. (SBU) To all accounts, Niger's Army remains a bastion of
secularism and a bulwark against Islamist politics. DAO
reports that there is no discernible move toward more rigid
Islamic practice within its ranks. This may reflect Izala's
status as a predominantly Hausa movement. While at least 56%
of Nigeriens are Hausas, the group has always been
underrepresented in the traditionally Djerma military. Given
the military's role in national life (Niger was governed by
military rulers from 1974-1993 and again from 1996-1999, and
the current President is a retired Lt. Col.) its continued
cultural distinction is significant. However, there are
civilian bastions of secularism as well. The country has a
small but influential middle class composed of French
speaking urbanites employed in the formal sector (usually as
government employees, NGO staff, or educators). Its members
range from secular to conventionally religious; sacrificing
some accuracy for simplicity, we refer to it as the "secular
middle class."

17. (U) The secular middle class's ability to advance its
cultural vision through politics is limited - as failed
efforts to establish a modern family code or bring Niger into
compliance with international agreements on women's rights
prove (reftels A, B). However, its ability to fend off
Islamist assaults on existing secular gains is stronger. It
was the secular middle class that supported President
Tandja's government in its successful efforts to shut down
radical Imams who preached against polio vaccinations and the
International Festival of African Fashion show. This class
likewise opposed Islamist efforts to make Niger a theocracy
in the 1990s. NOTE: the country settled for status as a
"non-confessional," though not "secular" state after an

NIAMEY 00001193 005 OF 005

intense debate over this aspect of its new constitution. END

18. (U) Though small in number, the secular middle class has
long enjoyed great latitude in expressing its views. Public
media and most of the country's numerous private weeklies
cater to it and reflect its views. Public sector employees
constitute the single largest constituency for the principal
opposition party, and members of this class, or of the
military class, run all of the country's major parties and
trade unions. The ruling MNSD party is led by a former
military officer (President Tandja) and a former customs
officer and government administrator (Prime Minister Amadou);
other ruling coalition parties are led, respectively, by a
retired international aviation administrator; an economist;
an army officer and ex-minister; and, a mathematician. While
many of these men are conventionally religious, none are
Izalas. While the MNSD counts on traditional chiefs and
Islamic clergy for much of its support, the key players are
all Islamic traditionalists and adherents of one of the Sufi
schools so opposed to Izala. For the moment, Izala is limited
to just a few major patrons, located outside of government.


19. (U) The bastions of secularism seem strongly rooted, and
thus far have proven largely impermeable to Izalist
influence. In the event that Izala doctrine begins to win
converts in the military or secular middle class it would be
a sure sign of fundamental cultural and political change in
Niger. Likewise, the marginalization of either class within
the Nigerien polity would say much about Izalay's rise. These
two small but influential classes are yardsticks for gauging
the process of slow motion cultural change that is bringing
the global phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam to Niger.

20. (U) Another, much larger measure is Nigerien youth, and
an examination of youth in Maradi suggests that slow motion
cultural change may be kicking into higher gear. An estimated
75% of Nigeriens are under 30 years of age. Young people in
Maradi seem to be embracing a new vision of success,
substituting the Islamist model of the illiterate trader
("commercant") for the secular middle class model of the
civil servant ("functionnaire"). Formal studies and countless
informal conversations with mission contacts give the same
impression: that the well-educated, francophone, modern,
public sector employee is no longer the ideal role model for
many Nigerien young people. Success increasingly seems to be
defined by the illiterate, Islamist, wealthy but very
traditional (as evidenced by multiple wives or the practice
of purdah) trader.

21. (U) To some extent, this aspirational shift derives from
recent Nigerien history. The 1990's witnessed the imposition
of budgetary strictures and the concomitant collapse of
Niger's public education and public employment systems. This
made the old "functionnaire" ideal seem unattainable to many
young people. At the same time, Izala style Islamic
literalism seems to have became "cool" - a sign of one's
transcendence of the Sufi oddities of village life and one's
embrace of a more rational, modern, and pure version of the

22. (U) For many nouveau riche urban commercants, Izalay
provides a connection to a global Islamic culture associated
with the glamour and wealth of Nigeria and the Middle East.
For young Nigeriens seeking absolute answers in a confusing
environment of rapid urbanization, population growth, and
political change, Izala's certainties are satisfying. At the
same time, the sect offers them a role model in the
successful Izala commercant. Therefore, the sort of Izala
Islam we see in Maradi is not simply a regression toward
anti-scientific, one-size-fits-all textual literalism - it is
a way for some Nigeriens to feel modern and "connected" in a
globalizing world. END COMMENT


© Scoop Media

World Headlines


ALRANZ: Denounces US Senate Confirmation Of Judge Barrett

ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa denounces the US Senate’s confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court seat formerly held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “This action demonstrates the rank hypocrisy of the once-respected upper chamber ... More>>

OECD: COVID-19 Crisis Puts Migration And Progress On Integration At Risk, Says

Watch the live webcast of the press conference Migration flows have increased over the past decade and some progress has been made to improve the integration of immigrants in the host countries. But some of these gains may be erased by the COVID-19 pandemic ... More>>

Reporters Without Borders: Julian Assange’s Extradition Hearing Marred By Barriers To Open Justice

After monitoring four weeks of evidence in the US extradition proceedings against Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates concern regarding the targeting of Assange for his contributions to journalism, and calls ... More>>

OHCHR: Stranded Migrants Need Safe And Dignified Return – UN Migrant Workers Committee

The UN Committee on Migrant Workers has today called on governments to take immediate action to address the inhumane conditions of migrant workers who are stranded in detention camps and ensure they can have an orderly, safe and dignified return to ... More>>