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Niger - Religion

The US government estimates the total population at 18 million (July 2015 estimate). More than 98 percent of the population is Muslim. Approximately 95 percent of Muslims are Sunni and 5 percent are Shia. Roman Catholic and Protestant groups account for less than 2 percent of the population. There are a few thousand Bahais, who reside primarily in Niamey and in communities on the west side of the Niger River. A very small percentage of the population adheres primarily to indigenous religious beliefs. Some individuals adhere to syncretic religious beliefs that combine traditional indigenous practices with Islam.

Niger is at something of a religious and societal crossroads. A history of Islamicization dating back to the seventh century is nevertheless mixed with equally ancient animist and other traditional practices that shape the local face of Islam in Niger. The majority of Nigeriens still follow an Islamic religious culture that incorporates elements of sharia, Sufi mysticism, and customary religious rites. In several regions, high level customary leaders deriving their authority from Niger’s pre-colonial past, such as the Sultans of Agadez and Katsina continue to maintain a good deal of legitimacy and influence.

At independence, the political elite in Niger embraced the French secular state’s traditions in asserting the authority of the state over religious institutions.53 With the Islamization of Nigerien society, the degree of commitment to maintaining a strong secular state and state hegemony over religious institutions has steadily eroded. Besides fostering the creation of multi-party politics, democratization in the early 1990s also led to the proliferation of Islamic Associations and the emergence of an Islamic civil society.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, specifies separation of religion and state as an unalterable principle, and stipulates equality under the law for all regardless of religion. It provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and the free exercise and expression of faith consistent with public order, social peace, and national unity. The constitution also states no religion or faith shall claim political power or interfere in state affairs and bans political parties based on religious affiliation.

Nongovernmental organizations, including religious organizations, must register with the MOI. Registration approval is based on submission of required legal documents, such as the group’s charter, and vetting of the organization’s leaders. Although some unregistered religious organizations reportedly operate without authorization in remote areas, only registered organizations are legally recognized entities. The MOI requires clerics speaking to a large national gathering either to belong to a registered religious organization or to get a special permit. Nonregistered groups are not legal entities and are not permitted to operate.

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?

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, Maradi's madrassas conform to the Government of Niger's (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.

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.

When one thinks of syncretistic African Islam, one is thinking of Tijaniya. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Izala's appeal to the young and certain major businessmen and professionals made it the fastest growing sect in Maradi over the last decade. Its local leader and spokesman, Rabe Dan Tchadouwa, was a prominent businessman with commercial ties to the Middle East and Nigeria. Dan Tchadouwa and other smaller players financed the construction of mosques, madrassas, and, increasingly, the provisioning of social welfare activities. The Izala community 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.

Izala communities tend to stick together, pray in their own mosques, and adhere to a dress code that distinguishes them from other Muslim communities. Charity is directed more to individuals as an investment rather than to the poor and vulnerable categories of the populations. These traits separate Izala from non-Izala Sufi and traditional Muslims who are generally more tolerant, less aggressive and resentful of Izala claims that they are not good Muslims.

The Izala 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. 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.

In some cases, these messages resonate with local culture and traditional animistic practices, resulting in a rise in the practice of cloistering women - ironically forcing men to assume many traditionally female tasks outside the home, such as fetching water. Many practitioners are also discouraging formal education, particularly for girls. The political ideas find fertile ground in the unemployed and disaffected youth of these regions, which many experts see as a potential powder keg.

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 faith. 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.

An estimated 75% of Nigeriens are under 30 years of age. Young people 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"). 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.

The growing influence of conservative preachers from the south and radical influences from the north have a potentially explosive effect when combined with unemployed, disaffected youth whose prospects seem equally dim whether they are illiterate or have finished university.

There are civilian bastions of secularism. 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. 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 proved. However, its ability to fend off Islamist assaults on existing secular gains was 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.

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.

In July 2015 authorities banned full-face veils in the Diffa region under state of emergency provisions. The ban was implemented following an increase in the region in militants’ use of burkas or similar coverings to conceal explosives.

On 16-17 January 2015, Niger experienced an unprecedented wave of attacks 45 churches, 36 drink vendors, two individual homes, a Christian school, several buildings used by the ruling party, and many French-owned businesses. Violent protesters set churches and other Christian religious buildings on fire in Niamey, Zinder, Maradi, and other towns, killing 10 people, injuring 177, and destroying 69 churches and Christian-owned homes. The press reported the protests were in reaction to President Mahamadou Issoufou stating “We are all Charlie” at an event in Paris commemorating the Charlie Hebdo killings. they were sparked by outrage at President Issoufou’s remarks during a trip to Paris to participate in a unity march in the wake of attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office.

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Page last modified: 07-05-2017 19:07:16 ZULU