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Islamist militancy in North Africa

July 2013 | by Patrick Sookhdeo

As violent Islamism poses a growing threat to post-Arab Spring Libya, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, reflects on its growing power and the menacing implications for Christians in North Africa and beyond.

Earlier this year a church building in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi was attacked by Islamist gunmen. Two weeks later it was torched by unidentified assailants.

The building was the place of worship attended by dozens of expatriate Egyptian Christians who had been detained and abused by Islamist militias for allegedly trying to convert Muslims. One of them, Ezzat Atallah, died in custody; his family claimed that he had been tortured.

Growing insurgency

These distressing incidents are ominous signs of the growing Islamist insurgency that is threatening the fragile security of Libya, following the Arab Spring.

Benghazi has become a base of operations for militias campaigning for an Islamic state ruled by Muslim clerics and governed by sharia law. The government there appears powerless to dislodge them, and its authority is also proving ineffective in the south, where fighters and weapons have been flowing across the border.

The violence has even spread to the capital, Tripoli, where the French embassy was bombed last month.

The growing influence of Islamism in the Maghreb (the five Muslim-majority countries along the north-west coast of Africa) has generated a number of militant groups committed to advancing the cause of Islam by force. But in the past year their reach has extended far inland, and recently it has even broken into Central Africa, threatening the large Christian communities there.

Mali and beyond

Many of the jihadists flooding into Libya have just been displaced from Mali, where they had been the leading players in a revolt against the government.

Groups with links to al-Qaeda seized control of two-thirds of the country in 2012 and rapidly imposed a harsh version of sharia, restricting civil and political rights and handing out cruel punishments. Amputation, flogging and stoning were all reported, along with the buying and selling of women and children.

The church in northern Mali was all but overwhelmed by the Islamist tide. All the church buildings in Gao and Timbuktu were destroyed, and Christian homes were looted. Many Christians were forced to flee the territory altogether, either to the south of Mali or into neighbouring countries.

A French military intervention succeeded in dislodging the Islamists from their strongholds and dispersing them. But many have gone to Libya and others to Algeria, where a gas plant was attacked in January by fighters from the militant group al-Qaeda in Maghreb.

In the present disordered condition of North Africa, Islamism is uprooted in one place, only to re-plant itself elsewhere, posing a grave threat to the church wherever it goes.

 East of Mali (and south of Libya) is Niger, which in turn borders Chad. These countries are relatively stable at present, but both are blighted by radical Islamist groups supporting strict and aggressive interpretations of Islam.

Such movements are increasingly active and popular. In September 2012, a church in Zinder, Niger’s second city, was trashed and set on fire in a violent outburst of protest against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. In May this year there were suicide bombings in Agadez and Arlit, in Niger.

Central Africa

All the countries mentioned so far have Muslim majorities, but in March this year Islamists seized power for the first time in a predominantly Christian nation — the Central African Republic (CAR).

The Seleka rebels, whose base is in the north, are said to follow Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. They apparently aspire to Islamise the country and impose sharia. They have replaced the former president with their own leader and now have control of the whole nation except the far east.

News emerging from CAR paints a grim picture for the country’s Christians. Days of chaos and looting followed the takeover, and the new government has since failed to restore order.

A pastor has reported attacks on individual Christians, who have been tied up, beaten and required to pay a ransom in exchange for their lives. Christian homes have been looted and their inhabitants driven away, and church buildings have been attacked. One woman said: ‘They [the Islamists] say, “It is our turn now. We will make you pay”.’

CAR is notoriously unstable, and it is far from clear that the Islamists will be able to consolidate their grip on power. But the mere fact of their taking over a country where Muslims number just 15 per cent of the population and Christians 75 per cent, demonstrates how potent African Islamism has become. Where will its champions take the cause of Islam next?

Unstable future

A common and notable feature of Mali, Niger, Chad and CAR before the recent troubles was the generally peaceful relationships between their Christian and Muslim citizens.

They proved that it is possible for Christians and Muslims to live together with a fair measure of peace and equality. The Islamist menace now threatens to upset this balance and plunge a vast swathe of the continent into the brutal anti-Christian violence that has already stricken Nigeria and Somalia.

It also raises the spectre of sharia over vulnerable Christian minorities — and even majorities — who face the loss of their freedoms and a second-class status at best.

European leaders have acknowledged the danger presented by North African Islamism. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called it a ‘large and existential threat’, while the French President François Hollande identified it as a major question for European security.

If Islamism were to establish itself firmly across northern and even central Africa, the consequences for the West would indeed be incalculable. But, as in so many places across the world, it might well be Christians who suffered the greatest hurt.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo