The Gambia: An Islamic Radical Group’s Haven for Recruitment


By Saul Njie, Blacksburg, Virginia

My first blog, ever — Time for an Islamic, Cultural Renaissance in The Gambia? — asked a question that was, at that time, and still to date, a question that I think is worth revisiting. Howbeit, in the article, I reflected on my formative years, my surroundings, our understanding of Islam and its nexus to the Abrahamic faiths. How, as kids, even though, we lacked a comprehension of the Quran, we still tried to convert our Manjago friends; our condescension towards the Manjagoes, not only because they were considered inferior, but because they were Christians, who were en route to hell, if they did not convert to Islam. Mind you, we were acting as professional ticketmasters to heaven, but couldn’t point anywhere in the Quran where such was stated, or even had any serious understanding of Islam or the other faith we deemed out of line — Christianity. As I grew older, read the scriptures, I had no choice but to question my childhood biases. As a case in point, I cited “Surah Al-Ankabut” to highlight the nexus between the Abrahamic faiths and why, in The Gambia, an Islamic and epistemological renaissance beckons us.

A couple of weeks ago, a video of a Gambian ISIS member surfaced on the web – and, like always, many a conversations ensued. I spoke to a friend who was utterly shocked, stating that “Gambians don’t know radicalism”that “the video was probably doctored” or some such. I, on the other hand, was just listening to the friend, wondering what the hell he was talking about? Even if the video was doctored, is there anything extraordinarily exceptional about the Gambian blood that makes us incapable of joining ISIS? I think a country where 90% of the population are muslims, but a good many lack the basic understanding of what is written in the Quran, is arguably and contentiously – the perfect place to recruit desperate, poor, half-baked Muslims to fight for something “higher” than themselves.

Last fall, leaked documents of ISIS were published by the Associated Press. According to the documents, “70 per cent of recruits were listed as having just “basic” knowledge of Sharia — the lowest possible choice. Around 24 per cent were categorized as having an “intermediate” knowledge, with just five per cent considered advanced students of Islam. Five recruits were listed as having memorized the Quran.” If we are being honest – these stats mirror Gambia, where a good many of the people lack basic knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), Hadith, or the Quran, in general.

Moreover, it was reported that ISIS’s Libyan chapter is swelling its ranks by offering cash bounties of up to $1,000 to people from impoverished neighboring countries such as Chad, Mali and Sudan. In countries where many earn barely $1 a day, even a few hundred dollars is the equivalent of a year’s salary.” Imagine being promised such a hefty salary and potentially going to heaven for dying for your faith as a martyr, if things go awry? This model, I posit, would be a catastrophic success, if ever proposed in The Gambia, for they would have a readymade demographic, waiting in line.

To boot, religion, from the outback of the Antipodes to the shores of The Gambia, is a form of resilience against poverty and helplessness for many poor people. Granted, we have a change of government, but that is just the first step in recovering from 52 years of economic stagnation, for political change without economic and social change, usually tantamount to naught, because democracy does not guarantee economic development. Therefore, the elephant in the room — poverty — is always going to push people to search for outlets, and one of the most powerful outlets for human beings, is our willingness to seek help and protection from religion, which is in and of itself a form of resilience.

Hence, we have to come to the reckoning that poor communities steadfast belief in a particular religion is an inherent aspect of their resilience – on reducing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience as incorporating to aspects: adaptive capacity and adaptive responses. The former is about the information, knowledge, skills and conditions necessary for their response actions – so that spiritual belief is part of the former. Albeit, it is evident that social resilience is nothing but an intricate organic linkage between the economic base and political institutional framework, and thus with economic and other forms of resilience. The economic circumstances have a great influence on the socio-political manifestations, writ large.

Tangentially, as a teenager, I joined a puritanical religious center called “Markass” – because everyone around me was going there. My brother, cousins, friends, basically everyone around my neck of the woods my age or older, was visiting the “Markass” center. All of a sudden – Islam became the seminal point of my existence. Withal – their message was darn powerful: the idea of the selfless person, heaven and hell, how Islam and Muslims have lost their way to the “Western” way of life. All of a sudden, Islam became a thing of not only faith but culture, too, for the argument against “Western” way of life is not only religious, but a very cultural argument.

This is what drove the Egyptian Islamic theorist, Sayyid Qutb, to write his famous book, In the Shade of the Qur’an or Fi Zilal al-Qur’an, after spending a year of so, in The United States — the decadence of the “West” and how Muslims should reclaim their faith and drive the infidels out of their lands, establish an Islamic state, especially in his homeland of Egypt, where Western civilization was becoming a normal fixture. His Magnum Opus gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, thus becoming the intellectual brainchild behind Jihadi movements like Al-Qaeda.

I kid you not – for the few months I was visiting the “Markass” center – I could’ve done anything in defense of Islam, because I was a young, half-baked, daft, untutored Muslim. A caveat: I am not equating “Markass” to any terrorist organization – just simply pointing out how easy it was to turn a young, half-baked, daft Muslim like me, into a diehard religious person and how easy it would have been for me to do whatever that was to defend Islam, whatever that meant, though. In a country where women are made to believe that they should worship their husbands, because, for some reason, that is their way to heaven, it is not going to be hard to convince poor, marginalized youths to join a so called cause “higher” than themselves.

Also, this is not a singling out Gambian society as radical one or some such, just highlighting how susceptible we are, just like most societies, to exhibit certain traits. The “Markass”center was great for many Gambian youths, because many were able to get into Islam more, read scripture, and become better Muslims. Nonetheless, they were able to flourish because they offered an outlet to many religiously, economically frustrated youths in the country. I just hope ISIS does not spread its recruitment to our shores, because, if they do, only God can help us, because denial and othering, is seriously not going to cut it.



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