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Why we need to engage with Muslim leaders who critique liberal democracy

Written by Aoife McCullough


Islam in modern politics has a bad rep. Yet in the lead up to Niger’s presidential elections this Sunday, Islamic Associations have arguably done more grassroots work to promote the election of accountable leaders than most NGOs working on governance.

Admittedly, not all Islamic Associations promote political participation through electing more accountable leaders. Some imams question the merits of democracy as the best governance system for Niger and encourage voters to boycott the elections.

In a country where many citizens’ most tangible experience of democracy is the exchange of small amounts of cash and goodies during election season (see report here) and where there is a widespread perception of increasing corruption since the advent of multiparty democracy (see report here), this is a position that holds traction.

But if the current form of governance is in need of deep reform, the debate about what form of governance Niger should have is necessary.

Faith leaders have huge political influence – and reach

Last year I researched how political parties engage with voters in Niger. I looked at what kind of political influence representatives of religious associations wield – and found that it was considerable.

In the town of Tibiri, about 50km north of the Nigerian border, a Wahabite preacher graciously invited me into the open courtyard of the madrassa (religious school) he was working at. He described the extensive network that his association, Ihy’ous Sounnah, has across Niger.

In each of Niger’s 265 municipalities, Ihy’ous Sounnah operates an office with about 8 to 12 workers. Approximately half of the workers look after administrative and coordination issues while the other half devote most of their time to preaching sermons in villages.

Preachers are expected to conduct two sermons per week – meaning that in a municipality with a population of approximately 80,000, it’s possible for Ihy’ous Sounnah to conduct sermons in an estimated 400 different villages in a year. 

It’s the kind of reach that Western NGOs only dream of.

The president of the municipal level office decides the themes of sermons to be conducted by the preachers each week. During elections, preachers include recommendations on how to identify a good leader. They emphasise that people should vote for leaders who are accountable to their people and who refrain from corrupt practices.

Ihy’ous Sounnah is not just concerned with the promotion of accountable leaders and resistance to corruption at the grassroots. In the capital of Niger, Niamey, it sometimes organises intellectuals from West Africa to come and give sermons on how Islam understands politics, continuing to encourage debate in the country about what form of governance Niger should have.

Islamic Associations have played this role since the advent of multiparty politics in the country. The new Islamic Associations which emerged following the demise of Kountche’s authoritarian regime were unaligned with the government, and invigorated debate about the state’s ‘western’ foundation.

International development needs to engage with Muslim leaders who critique liberal democracy
In international development, we are comfortable with ‘good governance’ meaning accountability, reduced corruption, and abandoning vote buying. Yet while we may support some Islamic Associations in promoting the election of accountable leaders, in our work we don’t see beyond a Western, liberal form of democracy. And we don’t take seriously debates about its merits, especially when those debates are initiated by Muslims. The same is true for Nigerien intellectuals and statesmen who believe in – and have fought for – a state based on secular principles.

This debate needs to be taken seriously. The problem is that some of those invested in the current democratic system in Niger work to suppress any questioning of the governance system, accusing those who do challenge it of being extremists.

There is insidious self-fulfilling element to this trend. If democracy as a system to elect leaders and govern a country continues to lose legitimacy among sections of the Nigerien population while discussion of alternatives are suppressed by the mainstream, those advocating alternatives are likely to become more extreme in their position.

Indeed, some already have. Not all imams were as gracious as the Wahabite we interviewed in Tibiri.  Some lectured me on why all corruption in Niger is rooted in Western interference. Others refused to talk to me.

With the current approach to the critique of liberal democracy by Islamic Associations, divisions will only deepen.