Speaking for Islam Ulama, Laïcité, and Democratization in Niger

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Abdoulaye Sounaye



Unexpectedly, one of the marking features of democratization in Niger has been the rise of a variety of Islamic discourses. They focus on the separation between religion and the state and, more precisely, the way it is manifested through the French model of laïcité, which democratization has adopted in Niger. For many Muslim actors, laïcité amounts to a marginalization of Islamic values and a negation of Islam. This article present three voices: the Collaborators, the Moderates, and the Despisers. Each represents a trend that seeks to influence the state’s political and ideological makeup. Although the ulama in general remain critical vis-à-vis the state’s political and institutional transformation, not all of them reject the principle of the separation between religion and state. The Collaborators suggest cooperation between the religious authority and the political one, the Moderates insist on the necessity for governance to accommodate the people’s will and visions, and the Despisers reject the underpinning liberalism that voids religious authority and demand a total re-Islamization. I argue that what is at stake here is less the separation between state and religion than the modality of this separation and its impact on religious authority. The targets, tones, and justifications of the discourses I explore are evidence of the limitations of a democratization project grounded in laïcité. Thus in place of a secular democratization, they propose a conservative democracy based on Islam and its demands for the realization of the common good.

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