The suspected Islamist terror attack on a restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on August 14 made headlines briefly, until the carnage in Barcelona took center stage three days later. The killing of 18 people in the capital of the small francophone country was practically a mirror image of the terror attack that left 29 dead in a hotel in Burkina Faso in January 2016. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for that assault.
In both cases coverage focused on the infiltration of jihadist extremists who are prepared to shed innocent blood to keep Westerners and Western investment out of the country and who are committed to paving the way, in the manner of ISIS and Boko Haram, for the eventual establishment of an Islamic caliphate on the African continent
Meanwhile, flying well below the radar is what some call the “Arabization” of Burkina Faso and other poor and underdeveloped African countries with significant Muslim populations. It takes the form of scholarships offered to impoverished youth who are invited to study in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait. They return schooled in a far more rigid, intolerant form of Islam. It clashes with the tranquil, easygoing ways of the faith as it has developed in certain African cultures, where it has been shaped by the peaceful strands of Sufism and mixed with animist beliefs and practices. “Arabization” is an effort to purify Islam according to the strict standards of the Wahhabi and Salafi sects.
That push is evident also in the work of non-governmental organizations from the Arabian Peninsula that are active in Burkina Faso. Prominent among them is Qatar Charity, one of the biggest Persian Gulf aid organizations. It is active in numerous countries, including the United Kingdom and France. The U.S. government has accused Qatar Charity of financing al-Qaeda. In Burkina Faso, Qatar Charity and similar NGOs operate subtly: Development projects, such as the digging of wells, go hand in hand with bringing preachers into the country from Pakistan and Qatar; the NGOs also build Koranic schools and social centers that help promulgate Wahhabism.
NGOs provide funding for the repair and construction of roadways, with projects often undertaken on the condition that local authorities allow for the building of mosques every so many miles — mosques run by highly conservative if not radical imams who are chosen by the NGOs. These NGOs work on hundreds of projects each year, all of them designed to benefit only the country’s Muslim population.
This Arabization is not necessarily tantamount to radicalization, at least not at this relatively early stage. Nonetheless, the import of stricter forms of Islam poses a threat to the comity that has long existed between Burkina Faso’s Muslims, about 60 percent of the population, and its Christians, just under a quarter.
Particularly at the village level, the unique bond between Catholics and Muslims has been expressed in their celebration of each other’s major feast days and other important occasions, such as the appointment of a new bishop. But since Arabization, a certain chill has begun to affect these bonds of friendship, particularly where the newly constructed mosques dot the cityscapes. This new wariness also reflects resentment that, although the Muslim majority holds economic power in the country, two Christians — President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba, both of them Catholics — steer the ship of state.
Naturally, for the country’s Catholic Church there is a concern about the future of Muslim–Christian relations if a more militant Islam takes root. Nonetheless, the Church in Burkina Faso hopes to remain a safe haven for Burkina Faso’s most vulnerable, regardless of their faith. In its provision of health care, education, and other social services, the Church will continue to make no distinction between Muslims and Christians, serving both with equal care and compassion.
The import of stricter forms of Islam poses a threat to the comity that has long existed between Burkina Faso’s Muslims, about 60 percent of the population, and its Christians.
The Church is particularly committed to promoting the welfare of girls, in the face of the local custom of marrying girls off at a very young age. Many girls find protection at Church-run boarding schools, and the nation’s bishops are at the forefront of calling attention to violence against women. Their task will not be made easier by the advent of a form of Islam that insists on the inferior status not only of women and girls but also of non-Muslims, regardless of sex.
The social and economic benefits provided by the Arab nations will come at a heavy price, if the rise of Muslim living standards is inextricable from the subjugation of others to a radical form of Islam. In Burkina Faso, as elsewhere, fundamentalist Islam will destroy the tribal traditions of moderation, tolerance, and an openness to dialogue — including to the Gospel message that preaches the equality of all men and women and promotes their well-being in all respects. Unlike fundamentalist Islam, Christianity is a faith that does not impose itself but persuades and gently invites.
Ultimately, the goal of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups converges with the objectives of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, et al.: the conversion of the African continent to a harsh, intolerant, and radical version of Islam. This is bad news for Africans and for the world at large, which can ill afford yet another region where, as in the Middle East, the Judeo-Christian tradition of tolerance and respect for human rights — including freedom of conscience and freedom of religion — must do battle with an ultimately unbending and merciless religious ideology.
It is high time that governments around the world — and in particular the U.S. and the European Union — become more astute in recognizing the geopolitical impact of religion and become more proactive in challenging the leadership of the Gulf States to halt the export of fundamentalist Islam to the African continent.