By Dibussi Tande
The evolution of Islam in Cameroon can be split into three major phases or generations; a the period of complete dominance by traditional Islam, followed by the era of the emergence of the “Arabized Intellectuals,” and finally, the period marked by the appearance of Islamic fundamentalism in the public sphere. Of course, this is not a linear trajectory since there is a certain amount of overlapping between these different periods.
Historically, Islam in Cameroon has been dominated by three brotherhoods, the Quadriya, Tidjaniya (or Tijaniyya) and the Mahdiya. According to Gilbert Fah, a leading scholar on Islam in Cameroon,
The Mahdiya used to be considered one of the most active Islamic brotherhoods in the region. It derives from Sudan and the well-known late–nineteenth-century Mahdist leader, who wanted to create a devout Islamic empire in the Lake Chad region. He successfully took on the British in Khartoum and was only stopped in his ambitions by the French, who killed him in 1900 in Fort-Foureau (present-day Kousseri in Cameroon). It is not coincidental that his religious legacy has such currency in this marginalised, impoverished area.
On the other hand, the Quadriya and Tidjaniya were pro-French during the colonial era. Today, the Quadriya is a peripheral group, while it is estimated that about 80% of Cameroonian Muslims belong to the Tidjaniya brotherhood, which used to take orders from Yola and Kano in Nigeria. Historically, the main Tijani centers in Cameroon were Foumban, Maroua, Ngaoundere and Garoua (see Peuples et cultures de l'Adamaoua, Cameroun : actes du colloque de Ngaoundéré, du 14 au 16 janvier 1992, p. 108)
The version of Islam practiced by the Quadriya and Tidjaniya is a largely tolerant Sufi inspired syncretic version which has been adapted to the local environment, and draws extensively from local traditions and superstitions, for example using amulets, practicing divination, believing in the Marabout – practices rejected by orthodox Islam. As the Brook Foreign Policy Review explains:
Popular among Sub-Saharan Muslims since the 17th Century, Sufism incorporates indigenous African forms of worship, prayer, song and dance as vehicles to evoke a higher spiritual and mystical experience with Allah.
Fah’s description of the early Muslim migrants in the city of Douala could very easily be about the vast majority of Muslims in Cameroon who practice this traditional Islam:
Only few mastered Islam and Arabic well and could hardly possess the level of knowledge required to carry out proselytism. They could only share the minimum Islamic knowledge they possessed with their immediate environment. Additionally, their religious practices were a mix of Islamic and African customs. This prevented them from being engaged in Islamic militancy based on literacy and the mastery of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Their daily life could only be built up around simplistic Islamic requirements such as the 5 daily and obligatory prayers, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. It was a realistic Islam that did not aim at carrying out proselytism. (4)
The result, according to Burnham, is that in Cameroon,
Islamic scholarship was relatively underdeveloped - in comparison, say, with the famous centers of Islamic learning in Northern Nigeria. This relative under-development of Islamic learning in northern Cameroon, in turn, must be viewed in the light of both pre-colonial and colonial history...the French government's policy in black African countries was built on three principles: 'to support the Islam of the marabout, to hinder "Arabisation", and to moderate the influence of northern Nigeria'. (The politics of cultural difference in northern Cameroon, 184),
Traditional Islam was, therefore, insular and not receptive, in fact, largely ignorant of, Islamic fundamentalist ideology from the Arab world. As another Muslim scholar pointed out back in 1992 when Cameroon’s Police Boss, Jean Fochive, falsely raised the spectre of Muslim Fundamentalist violence in Cameroon:
To put it bluntly, Cameroon has no Islamic movement in the tradition of Islamic fundamentalism such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt… In reality, Cameroonian Muslims are more drawn towards their traditions than to Islam proper. In other words, they are more traditionalist than Islamists… Islam as such has never been a priority in the minds and deeds of the Muslim elites…The total absence of serious Islamic institutions such as Islamic banks, schools, associations, clinics or even decent clean mosques are examples of Islam not being a priority of the Muslim decision-making elite. Claiming the existence of an Islamic fundamentalist movement in Cameroon is absolutely wrong…(Issa Ahmed Felala. “Cameroon’s Muslim Minority and the Process of Integration. (Cameroon Post, no. 105, April 9 – 16, 1992)
Arabization of Cameroonian Islam
The second phase of Islam in Cameroon occurred in the 1970s with the return of the first generation of Muslim students who had received scholarships to study in Arab countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. According to Fah,
“This new generation of Muslim activists was well trained in religious matters. They could speak, read and write Arabic very well and were proud of their mastery of the language of the Qur’an. Their education provided them with legitimacy in their community and they started pushing back the former local and traditional intellectuals who had neither mastered the language nor the meaning of the Qur’an. This new generation of Muslim intellectuals started challenging the status quo. They arrived in the field with new ideas and different Islamic practices that made the local aristocracy worried about the new role they may play in the changing society. (7)
Hamadou Adama (Islam and State in Cameroon: Between Tension and Accommodation) adds that:
The return of former students sent to Arab nations in the late 1960s and 1970s was a remarkable phenomenon in the urban centers. They returned with new Islamic knowledge and practices, advocated new commitments and claimed more political recognition of Islam in civil society. They repeatedly questioned local Islamic practices and later engaged themselves in sensitizing and educating the Muslim faithful in the necessity of understanding the Arabic language prior to any interpretation of the Holy Qu’ran. (12)
While the return of these Arab-trained students created some tension within the Muslim community, this Arab-centric Islamic movement did not really threaten traditional Islam because it was largely elitist, with preoccupations that seemed far removed from the daily reality of the majority of Cameroonian Muslims.
It is worth noting that this was also during the reign of President Ahmadou Ahidjo, himself a Muslim, who was nonetheless determined to keep Islam and Islamic authorities out of the public sphere and completely subservient to the Cameroonian state.
In addition, most, if not all of these Arab-trained intellectuals had also gone through western education, and as a result, their call for Islamic conformism neither challenged the existence and primacy of the modern secular state, nor exhibited any anti-Western tendencies.
Not so the members of the third generation Islamic Fundamentalists who came of age in the 1990s following the liberalization of the Cameroonian political scene.
The Emergence of Islamic Fundamentalism in the public Sphere
The political liberalization of the early nineties led to the emergence of Islamic NGOs which bypassed traditional mosques to become focal points for proselytization and the dissemination of fundamentalist Islamic ideology from Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which provided funds to these organizations. According to Mayke Kaag:
By combining material aid with proselytization, [these NGOs] embed their work in ideas about transnational solidarity and the importance of enlarging the umma, the global community of the faithful. By disseminating a Salafi form of Islam, they link local believers to other parts of the Muslim world. They thus nourish processes of Islamization and Arabization.
Writing specifically about the role of Saudi Arabia, Jonathan Fighel points out that:
Ideas are one of the most important exports of Saudi Arabia in its quest for Islamic dominance as it regards itself as the “spearhead of the Muslim world” as the “Guardian of the two Holy Places” committed to take care of Muslim communities and minorities around the world. Saudi Arabia had a network of preachers and teachers who have enormous financial resources, which they utilized in order to, advance and disseminate their [Wahabbi] version of Islam around the world.
In Cameroon, fundamentalist teachings are channeled through a new generation of Arab-trained Islamic scholars who are determined to articulate their fundamentalist doctrine not just on the margins of the Muslim community in the country, but at the center of the Muslim public sphere. As Fah points out:
Those who can be qualified as the third generation of Muslim activists became more dedicated than the two first generations and started a process of transformation of their community from within (not from the top as the two first generations had). Their number grew exponentially thanks to increased interest in religious issues, the availability of Arab institutions where most of them were trained, and the aggressive policies of many Muslim organizations from Arab countries that led to heightened attention to Islamic teachings and preaching worldwide… (9)
He adds that this new generation of Arabophones share a worldview which is unapologetically and unconditionally Arabo-centric: “Even the naming of their children reflects this ‘Arab’ orientation: where boys used to be called Hamado, Farikou and Bachirou, they are now Nasser, Moubarak and Sadate; girls who used to be Aissatou, Fadimatou, Djenabou are now Safiya, Hihad, Benazi and Fawsi.”[In The War On Terror, the Chad–Cameroon Pipeline, and the New Identity of the Lake Chad Basin ]
Haman highlights a peculiarity about the new generation of Arabophiles, which distinguishes them from the second generation of Arab-trained scholars, and largely explains their receptiveness to radical Islam:
They are well educated in Islamic terms but lack the modern skills required by the local African job market; they have no place in either public administration or the private sector. That being so, it is not surprising that many have turned to religious activities, becoming activists somewhat more radical (especially in their position against Western modernity) than their Western-educated, employed counterparts.
Although this third generation belongs to a variety of homegrown and foreign Islamist groups, they are commonly – and indiscriminately – referred to as Wahhabis because the largest and most active Islamic Fundamentalist movement in Cameroon is the Wahhabi branch of Islam from Saudi Arabia. In Cameroon, as in the case of Pakistan and many other countries around the world with a Muslim population,
Local scholars were influenced by the vision and understanding of Islam is indelibly shaped by their own experiences in Saudi Arabia. They see the Saudi Wahhabi version of Islam as normative and other forms of Islam as deviant. A principle purpose… is to attack the west and rival Muslim, including Sunni groups, and to sternly condemn them as ‘aberrant’ on account of differences in their methods of performing rituals and their rules governing a range of issues related to normative personal and collective behavior. Another interesting feature of the literature that is directly linked to the close association with the Saudi Wahabbis is a fierce hostility to local beliefs and practices.
The effects on the religious landscape in a secular country such as Cameroon are beginning to be felt. According to Father Krzysztof Zielenda, director of Yaoundé's St. Joseph Mukasa Institute:
“in Cameroon, Islam is changing its physiognomy… it is moving from the traditional Islam of fraternities, to an Islam marked by the Wahhabite movement… So the Muslim world is being reformed in Cameroon…Traditionally relations between Christians and Muslims have been good and continue to be good, however, both Christians and Muslims are very worried over the influence of Wahhabites, which is increasingly visible."
Other less known but growing Islamic fundamentalist groups in Cameroon include the Da’awah (also spelled Dawah or Da'awa), a Pakistani Islamic group which set up base in Maroua in 2002, and rejects the modern secular state, democracy, television, etc., and calls for the establishment of an Islamic state, and the institution of Sharia law. Fah believes that “Today, given its multinational character, its integration into local communities, and its overall popularity, it has become a major force to be reckoned with in the region (The War On Terror...).
During my research, I was unable to identify the specific Pakistani Islamic group that the Dawah is affiliated with, especially since Dawah is a common Arab word which means literally means "call" ((as in calling to the Truth through preaching and and spreading the word of God) and which features in the name of many Pakistani Islamist groups and charity organizations. For example, the Jamat-ud-Dawah, which was designated a terrorist organization by the US and other countries for allegedly being the front group for the Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT), the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Another fundamentalist group from the Indian sub-continent with a base Cameroon is Tablighi-jamaat, whose appeal, according to the Brooks Foreign Policy Review, “is animated by its unique strain of Islamic ideology and missionary zeal.” It adds that “Despite Tablifhi Jamaat’s attempts to fly beneath the radar screen with its non-violent and non-threatening posture, charges that it is a jihadist organization persist.”
Irrespective of which movement they belong to, Islamic fundamentalists in Cameroon have placed themselves in direct opposition to, and in confrontation with traditional Muslim authorities and traditional brotherhoods particularly the Tidjaniya. In the 1990s, these confrontations regularly turned violent in Douala where fundamentalists and traditionalists fought to control local mosques.
More significantly, between 2000 and 2004, young Saudi-trained Wahhabis clashed with Tijanis in the town of Foumban, capital of the influential Bamoun Sultanate and one of the major Tijani centers in the country, over the interpretation of the scriptures and the right of the Wahhabis to worship and preach in the Central Mosque In December 2001, for example, the two groups had a violent confrontation after the Sultan led the main end of Ramadan prayer session alongside Khalid Attawil, a Wahhabi of Saudi origin, thereby reinforcing a widespread perception among the Bamoun that their Sultan, who is incidentally the head of the Tidjaniya brotherhood, supported demands of the “heretical” Wahhabi.
To be continued…
Part III and Conclusion – Can Radical Islam Take Root in Cameroon?