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Gambia, Islam and Politics in the

Marloes Janson
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Gambia, Islam and Politics in the

Located as a miniature state enclaved within Senegal, the Gambia has a population of approximately 1.6 million, of which about 95 percent is Muslim. Apart from being a geographical Lilliput, for a long time the Gambia lacked the type of controversial leadership that marks so many African countries. This changed when Yahya Jammeh took power after a bloodless coup d’état in 1994. His military coup ended the period in office of the longest serving national leader in Africa, Sir Dawda Jawara (Hughes and Perfect 2006, p. 280). Jammeh was first elected as President in 1996 and, to the chagrin of the political opposition who claimed that the elections were fraudulent, reelected in 2001, 2006, and 2011. In addition to establishing President Jammeh’s regime, the 1994 coup brought on a more prominent role for Islam in public life in the Gambia.

History of Islam in the Gambia.

According to a survey conducted by Trimingham in the 1950s (1959, p. 233), the Gambia had the highest percentage of Muslim inhabitants in West Africa. This situation can be explained partly by the fact that the Gambia River is one of Africa’s most navigable waterways and has always provided traders with easy access to the country’s interior. Trade was vital in introducing Islam and attracting people to it. Islam may have reached West Africa via the trans-Saharan trade as early as the eighth century. From the tenth century onwards, North African Muslim merchants settled in the main towns along the trade routes (Clarke 1982, p. 10). Muslim merchants, as well as travelling Muslim scholars, gradually gained more influence in the Gambian Mandinka kingdoms (the Mandinka are the largest ethnic group in the Gambia) (Quinn 1972).

Islam did not become a major force in the Gambia until the nineteenth century, when a number of reform-oriented Muslim scholars―inspired by the examples of famous jihādists like Usuman dan Fodio (c. 1754–1817) and al-Hājj ʿUmar Tall (c. 1797–1864)―embarked on jihāds, known as the “Soninke-Marabout wars.” Feeling threatened by the non-Muslim Soninke ruling class of the Mandinka kingdoms and determined to maintain their Muslim identity, these Muslim scholars, often referred to as marabouts, tried to set up Islamic states in the heart of the Senegambia region. In the 1860s, the jihādist Maba Diakhou (c. 1809–1867) managed to impose an Islamic form of government on large areas of Senegambia that were previously untouched by Islam. His jihād sparked off other Muslim movements in the wider Gambia region, spreading Islam further (Quinn, pp. 109–130; Clarke, pp. 140–142; Hiskett 1984, pp. 232–233).

Although official statistics are lacking, it is obvious that many in the region converted to Islam as a result of the Soninke-Marabout wars. Despite the fact that these jihāds contributed to making Islam the religion of the majority of the region’s population, a side effect was that they reinforced colonial imperialism since the British rulers felt compelled to maintain order along the Gambia River (Frederiks, 2003, p. 153). By the end of the nineteenth century, the Muslim population found itself under the growing power of the British Empire. Their leaders were either defeated in battle or coopted into the new order. As a result, Islam at the beginning of the twentieth century was not a state religion but the religion of individual believers who had affiliations with the Sūfī orders, including the Qādirīyya and Tijānīyya. Although both orders still have a considerable number of followers in the Gambia, they have never become as prominent as in neighboring Senegal (Mbacké 2005, p. iii).

An unintended consequence of colonial rule was that Islam grew from a minority religion in the nineteenth century into a majority religion in the twentieth century, largely because of the favorable socioeconomic conditions created by British colonialism. By building roads to previously inaccessible areas of the country and opening the hinterland of the Gambia River, the British enabled Muslim leaders and traders to communicate with one another and expand their spheres of influence. The British acknowledged the centrality of Islam in Gambian life by making room for some elements of the sharīʿa in the legal system of colonial Gambia, and qādīs were appointed in the Muslim courts. Although several Muslim leaders collaborated with the colonial government, many others responded to colonial rule by withdrawal: they avoided any form of contact with Western influences through culture, education, and so forth (Clarke, p. 194). Consequently, after independence many Muslims lagged behind in development because they had rejected Western education. This hampered their active participation in the new nation-state.

Muslim Emancipation.

With the foundation of the Gambia Muslim Congress (GMC)―a political party that was established in 1952 with the aim of putting an end to the discrimination faced by Muslims in the provision of educational facilities―began a wave of Muslim emancipation (Hughes and Perfect, p. 110, p. 123). Gambian Muslim parties and pressure groups called for a Muslim equivalent to the Christian schools established in the colonial period (Clarke, p. 225; Skinner 1990, pp. 133–135). Money coming from oil-producing Muslim countries since the 1970s facilitated the implementation of these demands. A factor that contributed to the modernization of Islamic education in the Gambia was that Islamic studies became a compulsory subject on the national curriculum in the early 1990s. Today all Gambian schools, even Christian mission schools, employ at least one ustādh (teacher) of Islamic studies. According to Nyang (1993, p. 248), by introducing Qurʾānic studies in all schools in the country the Gambian government went further than many other West African states.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of Gambian students have received scholarships to universities and colleges in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait (Skinner 1983, p. 15). Upon their return to the Gambia, they attempted to reform Islam by purifying it from local traditions. On the grounds that they were educated in formal institutions in the Arab world, they claim to have more insight into the proper interpretation of Islam than scholars who were trained in the traditional Muslim education system in the Gambia. Owing to the renewed Afro-Arab cooperation that followed Jammeh’s assumption of power in the Gambia in 1994, a number of international Muslim organizations, involved in both da‘wah (mission) and development-oriented activities, capitalized on this new interpretation of Islam in the country by investing in the construction of madāris (Islamic schools). In addition, mosques were constructed and Islamic literature disseminated (Janson 2007).

The presence of international Muslim organizations in the Gambia resulted not only in the embedding of the Gambia in transnational religious networks, but also in an increased visibility of Islam in Gambian society at large and its assertiveness in the media. Since the 1990s, Muslim scholars have begun to use public media, including radio, television, and newspapers, in their attempts to promote Islamic knowledge and practice in Gambian society. Islamic radio and television broadcasts, as well as audiotapes of preaching, newspaper columns written by Muslim scholars, and religious pamphlets have brought about a public debate in the Gambia on what “being Muslim” involves (Janson).

New Muslim Politics.

A new framework for public debates about Islam has developed in the Gambia since Yahya Jammeh came to power. Jammeh, originally an army lieutenant who took power during a coup in an attempt to bring about socioeconomic development, has lately begun to style himself as a Muslim dignitary. His statue in the capital, Banjul, shows him in military uniform, but nowadays he appears in public wearing a turban and clasping prayer beads, punctuating his speeches by Qurʾānic verses and Arabic expressions. His supporters proudly refer to him as “The Sultan.” His marriage to the daughter of a Moroccan Muslim scholar completed the Islamic image he had been inventing for himself. Through this marriage, Jammeh gained the friendship of Muslim religious leaders in Morocco and a meaningful place for the Gambia in the Muslim world (Darboe, 2007, p. 141, p. 153).

Jammeh’s military coup caused Europe and the United States to temporarily cease their financial support to the Gambia (Touray, 2000, pp. 173–176). This prompted Jammeh to establish relations with various Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Libya. Until early 2000, the late Libyan president Qadhdhāfī was President Jammeh’s closest ally in the Arab world (Hughes and Perfect, p. 276). It is publicly known that Libyan money financed several hospitals and schools in the Gambia, a huge mosque in Serrekunda, the GRTS (Gambia Radio and Television Services), and that Qadhdhāfī personally contributed several million U.S. dollars toward the reduction of the country’s external debt.

Prior to 1994 Islam was not very important in Gambian national affairs. Jammeh’s predecessor, Sir Dawda Jawara, started his period of government as a Christian. In the late 1950s, when leading figures in his party (the Progressive People’s Party) put pressure on him to divorce his Christian wife and marry a Muslim woman, Jawara reconverted back to Islam and changed his name from David into Dawda (Darboe, p. 139). Despite this reconversion, during his leadership President Jawara built on the colonial legacy of secularism. This became evident in the severance of relations with the Libyan government in the 1970s. Qadhdhāfī had offered the Jawara regime financial help in improving the transportation infrastructure. When the Gambian government had plans to start a drinks factory that would produce beer, Qadhdhāfī threatened to withdraw his support since the production of alcohol contravened his Islamic values. Although his government was in need of the Libyan assistance, Jawara made it clear that his public policy would not be dictated by a foreign power’s religious values and he terminated diplomatic relations with Libya. For the same reason, he declined assistance from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when their aid was linked to the expulsion of Ahmadī missionaries—whose ideas about prophethood were considered heretical—from the Gambia (Darboe, pp. 139–140). Jammeh, on the contrary, set up a Ministry of Religious Affairs, breathed new life into the Supreme Islamic Council, built mosques in state institutions, and inscribed Qurʾānic verses on public buildings.

President Jammeh’s official intervention in Islamic discourse may be partly explained by his age and ethnicity. At the time of his takeover he was only twenty-nine years old. In a society where status depends on seniority, Jammeh’s age worked against him. Being a Jola, an ethnic group generally regarded as not being closely affiliated with Islam (Baum 1999), did not help his position either. Many Mandinka elders, who had been loyal followers of President Jawara, strongly objected to the idea of a young Jola soldier holding power. To win their support, Jammeh arguably needed to affirm his Muslim identity and this opened the way for a greater role for Islam in Gambian public life. To advance his political agenda, Jammeh discredited the traditional Muslim leaders who had been loyal to the Jawara regime and its secular approach to governance on national television (Darboe, p. 141). Instead, he appointed Imām Abdoulie Fatty, a Muslim scholar who studied in Saudi Arabia, as his personal adviser, and asked him to lead the Friday sermons at the State House Mosque. Interestingly, while Yahya Jammeh promoted a more Arab-inspired style of Islam, the previous Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, was being criticized for misusing his affiliation to the local Mouride Sūfī order for official purposes (Villalón 2007, p. 173).

The growth in tourism on the Gambian coast―contributing around 16 percent of the Gambia’s national income (Wright 2004, p. 248)―may also have contributed to President Jammeh’s Muslim politics. According to Jammeh, the Gambia’s problems are mainly rooted in the immorality caused by (sex) tourism and he therefore instituted widespread moral reforms to put an end to what he called “national decay.” In government clean-up campaigns, bumsters, that is beach boys and cannabis smokers who often grow dreadlocks and offer sexual services to tourists, were targeted and their heads shaved. In this way, these men were branded as the visible sign of Gambia’s purported moral degradation (Ebron 2002, pp. 167–168, p. 177). President Jammeh went so far in his national fight against moral decay that in early 2000 rumors spread that he, following northern Nigerian leaders, wanted to implement sharī‘a. Jammeh’s spokesperson denied that the president made any such statement. Fearing imprisonment, journalists stopped broadcasting about Jammeh’s turn toward the sharī‘a but discussions about his public affirmation of Muslim identity continued. What these discussions demonstrate is that Islam has taken center stage under Jammeh’s presidency. Not only has he used religion to shore up his legitimacy as a Muslim leader, he also redefined the Gambian nation through his policing of morality.

President Jammeh’s attempt to control religious practice in the Gambia became more evident in his “Operation No Compromise.” Launched as a strategy to tackle financial impropriety in 2003, the Anti-Corruption Commission began hearings of civil servants in 2004. A number of officials faced charges and were arrested. After the events of September 11, 2001, pressure from the United States to act against Muslim “terrorists” in Africa increased (Schraeder 2005; Lecocq and Schrijver, 2007), which later turned Operation No Compromise into an attack against the alleged presence of Muslim extremists in the Gambia. For instance, two Iraqi brothers, Wahab and Bisher al-Rawi, based in Britain who had, assisted by two men, a Palestinian who had lived in Britain for several years and a British citizen, planned to set up a peanut processing business in the Gambia were interrogated by the National Intelligence Agency. Because they were accused of using their business to set up a terrorist training camp in the Gambian countryside, they were arrested. Due to lack of evidence, Wahab and the British citizen were released and returned to Britain. Thetwo other men, who did not have British citizenship, were sent to Guantanamo Bay (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/khadr/readings/gitmo.html).

As a result of President Jammeh’s involvement in the “War on Terror,” relationships between the Gambia and the United States have improved. Internationally, the Gambia is caught between the forces of Western economic and political powers and that of the oil-rich Muslim countries. In terms of domestic politics, Gambian society oscillates between democracy and secularism, on the one hand, and the pressures of reformist Islam, on the other (Darboe, p. 159). As Darboe points out, a career in Gambian politics therefore necessarily involves balancing allegiance to the Arab Muslim world with the realities of increasingly desperate economic conditions. Jammeh’s move upon what he considered a “mandate ordained by Allah” to the “curing” of AIDS patients with “seven herbs named in the Qur’an” in 2007 (Cassidy and Leach, 2009), illustrates how delicate such a balancing act can be. Cassidy and Leach (pp. 570-571) conclude that Jammeh’s treatment program is part of a political struggle with the international agencies promoting foreign, biomedical AIDS programming and medical research, invoking a pan-Islamic notion of allegiance that is no less global than that suggested by AIDS therapeutic globalism.

As a result of President Jammeh’s Muslim politics, he was decorated with different insignia, including the highest Libyan insignia―Grand Commander of the Order Al-Fatah. Furthermore, he was elected as the first president of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), based in Saudi Arabia, to represent Africa. Through his presidency of the OIC, Jammeh has increased the Gambia’s influence in the Muslim world.


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