The research project focuses on Salafism and Pentecostalism on the campuses of the Université d’Abomey-Calavi (Benin) and the Université de Lomé (Togo) since the 1970s. It engages four sets of research questions and analytical perspectives. First, it draws on the growing body of literature calling to devise better ways of approaching religious pluralism in Africa beyond conflict or interfaith dialogue, either stressing violence or tolerance. Besides examining the cohabitation between Muslims and Christians and the related issue of radicalism within the higher education sector, special attention will be paid to processes of appropriation and drawing boundaries with religious Others. The research project will investigate how Salafi and Pentecostal groups on campuses define religious communities and proper practice, both in contradistinction from other competing religious organizations and through borrowing prayer styles, proselytizing techniques, media practices, and organizational strategies.
Related to the focus on how religiosity is formed and experienced through encounters with diverse Others in pluralist settings is the “lived religion” approach on which this project is also based. The project assesses the plurality of ways in which university students practice their religion and make their religious identity meaningful in their everyday lives. In doing so, this study seeks to explain why religion has been able to occupy such an important place in students’ life and in the academic sphere, which was formerly dominated by leftist and secular ideologies.
Thirdly, the project reflects on how religious activism, ostentatious religious signs and markers, and ongoing debates on campuses about the role of religion in the public sphere affect the university as a secular educational institution. Both the Constitutions of Benin and Togo enshrine the secular nature of the State inherited from the French colonial legacy. How has the rise of religious activism on campuses redefined the Western academic model of the public university in the region and its secular intellectual culture? How have the state and university administrators managed religious accommodations and the growing religiosity on campus?
Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa have historically been highly politicized institutions. They have acted as an important vehicle of elite formation and reproduction. Therefore, the fourth set of questions examines the more assertive sociopolitical roles assumed by religious groups on university campuses. To what extent are religious groups calling into question the leadership of “traditional” secular student unions as the main representative body of all students in the university administration. The research also assesses the degree of autonomy and the capacity for the emerging elite trained in secular institutions to publicly express divergent opinions in relation to the discourses of the “official” or “self-proclaimed” representatives of their religious community.
Youth and Women’s Islamic Activism in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso
I am currently completing a book manuscript tentatively entitled “Youth and Women’s Islamic Activism in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.” The book is a comparative historical study of the role of Muslims from marginalized social groups in the transformations of Islam in these two countries over the past sixty years. The parallel religious demography of both countries—with Islam as the main religion (60% in Burkina Faso; 43% in Côte d’Ivoire) but with Muslims historically in a subordinate political role—makes the comparison of these two specific cases compelling. My approach is highly interdisciplinary, bringing together history, religion, anthropology, and political science. The research draws from a combination of sources, including twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in Abidjan and Ouagadougou (2011; 2014–15), along with thousands of archival materials, national newspaper articles, and documents produced by Islamic organizations. I have developed techniques for collecting, organizing, and exploiting a broad array of written sources that scholars of Islam in Africa have often considered too scarce to be meaningfully employed.
The core argument of the book is that intergenerational and gender relations are at the heart of the dynamics (re)structuring the Islamic ﬁeld in recent decades, and that these relations are intricately linked to issues of power and religious authority. I assess the individual and collective capacity of youth and women to both challenge and conform to social constraints through Islamic activism. I demonstrate that generational and gender differences heavily favoring male senior leaders in both countries in the 1970s and ’80s have been tempered over time, even if tensions persist. This is especially salient in Burkina Faso where strong gerontocratic principles still prevail within Islamic organizations, and showing deference to the older generation often remains an important social norm. The recent developments in both countries also echo the diversification in the types and sources of religious authority which can be observed elsewhere in the contemporary Muslim world. More individuals and groups from different segments of society now claim the right to speak in the name of Islam, including youth and women. Francophone “Muslim intellectuals” have been at the forefront of the emergence of a “civil Islam” by devising new forms of civic engagement and entrepreneurship for socio-economic development.