THE wave of religious extremism in large parts of Africa from the Horn to the Atlantic has assumed dangerous proportions and threatens to destabilise a number of states, including the continent’s most populous country. From Nigeria to Somalia, Islamist extremists, some of them well-armed, are on the rampage, attacking Sufi shrines, blowing up churches and bombing civilian targets. In Mali, on two successive days, religious extremists attacked shrines in Timbuktu, one of non-Arab Muslim Africa’s most prized cultural assets, and destroyed them. Armed with pickaxes, supporters of Ansar Dine, Mali’s armed Islamist movement, which controls the country’s northern part, demolished a number of mausoleums over the weekend and have vowed to destroy more. The rampage did not stop there; on Monday, there were reports that the extremists had attacked a 15th-century mosque in Timbuktu to prove wrong a legend associated with the place of worship. The Mali attacks immediately bring to mind the growing intolerance within Pakistan, which has seen extremists, subscribing to orthodox ideologies, target symbols representing the softer face of Islam and at variance with their own views. Sufi shrines have increasingly been attacked all over the country by hardliners.
The fanatical elements among those subscribing to the Salafist movement may or may not have links with Al Qaeda. But there is no doubt that their extremist philosophy, often translating into militant movements, have sprouted across the Islamic world from Indonesia to Morocco. What is unfortunate is that efforts to tackle their bigoted stance have been piecemeal in the Muslim world. There is no wide-ranging counter-narrative to challenge the discourse that sees Islam in monolithic terms. And in its absence a narrow interpretation of religion is bound to dominate. Those countries battling militant Islam today should also realise that extremist thought cannot be countered through drone attacks or state force. In fact, these have an opposite effect and end up creating more space and sympathy for the extremists. The only response to those who advocate an extremist position on religion is greater openness and sustained democratic processes in Islamic countries where the discourse on religious tolerance and pluralism must also be encouraged.