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Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia build Africa mosques

December 18, 2019

Africa is receiving hundreds of mosques. Be the buildings white, mint-green or sky-blue, the funding often comes from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. The investors' ideologies have potentially far-reaching consequences.

Somalia Moschee der Islamischen Soldarität in Mogadishu
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. A. Warsameh

In November the largest mosque in Djibouti, the Abdulhamid II Mosque, was inaugurated. At 13,000 square meters (140,000 square feet) and 6,000 seats, the mosque in Djibouti City is a colossus. Two minarets rise 46 meters (152 feet). The walls are decorated with classic Ottoman calligraphy. The dome is covered with gilded copper lamellas, and a huge chandelier in the inside evokes the illuminations of Turkish mosques.

Djibouti's new landmark was financed by Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs. Diyanet, as the authority is called, considers the mosque a sign of the strengthening bond between Djibouti and Turkey. Most of the material was imported from Turkey, including the cream-colored natural stone in the prayer room. In 2015, the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he wanted a mosque of Ottoman architecture. "Turkey wants to distinguish itself as an Islamic power, just as Saudi Arabia has been for decades," Abdoulaye Sounaye, an anthropologist from Niger who works with Berlin's Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, told DW.

Turkey is investing millions of dollars into its effort to increase its influence across Africa. Over four decades, Diyanet has financed the construction of more than 100 mosques and educational institutions in 25 countries worldwide, including the African nations Djibouti, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. Turkey has also been involved in the renovation of mosques in South Africa and the construction of the Nizamiye Mosque — the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Turkey also helped to renovate the Mosque of Islamic Solidarity in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. It is the largest mosque on the Horn of Africa, with room for up to 10,000 believers.

"This is how countries create a reputation and show people: 'You can rely on us — we have resources at hand,'" Sounaye said. Nowadays, one can find those large and shiny mosques even in places where not even electricity is guaranteed.

Nizamiye Mosque
The Nizamiye Mosque in South Africa is a replica of the Selimiye Mosque in TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Schickert

'The Salafi trend'

The Mosque of Islamic Solidarity was originally built in 1987 with funds from the Saudi Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Foundation. "Saudi Arabia has been doing this for 10 to 20 years now: investing in Niger, Nigeria and Mali," Sounaye said. "In this way they create spaces for specific theological takes on Islam, in particular here the Salafi trend." Salafism is a particularly strict interpretation if Islam practiced by some Sunni Muslims. Based on the ideal of Islam's early period, Salafims do not accept Sufism and other more tolerant doctrines of the faith that are widespread in Africa.  

"In mosques, every form of ideology can be spread," said Bakary Sambe, who heads the Timbuktu Institute, a think tank in Senegal's capital, Dakar, and researches radicalization and religious conflicts in Africa. "Influence and power can be gained through religion."

Like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran have recognized religion's potential for exerting influence in African countries. Sambe said Iran had built mosques in Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Guinea, among other places. "It is a competition between the powers of the Middle East," Sambe said. For example, he added, Saudi Arabia is building more mosques in Nigeria to counter the Shiite Islam that Iran is attempting to spread and "to keep the people with the Salafists." In Nigeria, Shiite Muslims are a minority and say they often feel oppressed.

Religion und Ramadan in Burkina Faso
West Africa has a large Muslim populationImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Kambou

Sites of radicalization?

Sounaye criticizes the fact that a financial investment is often all that is required to construct a mosque. "Until recently, anyone who had the means could build a mosque in Niger," he said. "There was no regulation." More than 21 million people live in the country in the Sahel zone: 99% are Muslims. "Since 1990, mosques have become the most contested places in Niger," Sounaye said. One of the main reasons was the rise of Salafism, he added. "Saudi Arabia has built a mosque in Niger," he said.. "A Nigerien student was trained as an imam in Saudi Arabia. For some years now, he has had a leading role in the mosque in Niger — and this is important to support Salafism."

Religious violence is a serious problem in Africa. "Since the 1990s, when Salafism has been increasingly supported by Saudi Arabia, there have been more and more conflicts," Sounaye said. In Nigeria, radicalization has helped the terrorist militia Boko Haram. "Their former leader Mohammed Yusuf used his own mosque to spread the ideology of jihad. Saudi support has led to the emergence of the Salafi trend."

The central mosque in Nouakchott, Mauritania
The central mosque in Nouakchott, Mauritania, was financed by Saudi ArabiaImage: imago/robertharding

In Mali and Niger, Sufi Muslims — who are considered tolerant and spiritually oriented and have ascetic tendencies  — are particularly vulnerable, Sambe said: "The Salafis aim to destroy them." Despite the overwhelming number of Sufis and their strong traditions and deep roots, Salafism is gaining the upper hand, Sambe said, thanks to the financial support of Saudi Arabia. For years, the country has denied official cooperation with Salafis, but Sambe said that was a strategy of "double diplomacy." "The state says that they do not collaborate with these radical movements," Sambe said. "But private, rich organizations continue to finance these mosques."

Morocco has also become increasingly active in religious diplomacy in Africa, founding the Institute Mohammed VI in 2015 to train imams to counteract the extremist ideologies in the Sahel with a moderate version of Islam. The institute primarily trains imams from West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Guinea. There were 500 scholarship holders from Mali alone. The imams say Morocco supports them after their studies by constructing mosques or reconstructing those that have been destroyed — and it does so discreetly, no splendid buildings required.  

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DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German-born journalist.
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