Projets de recherche

The contemporary expansion of corporate Islam in rural West Africa


Projet SNF PCEFP1_186907
Start/End: 01.04.2020 – 01.04.2025

Extended Summary (PDF)

According to mainstream media, as a result of the pressure of armed groups of Islamic allegiance, the State has recently withdrawn from large areas of the Sahel (central Mali; northeast Burkina Faso, northeast Nigeria). Alarming discourses have also been thriving among experts on West Africa since the fall of Gaddafi in the region. Security advisors are even speculating that southern regions of Muslim West Africa were about to fall in the hands of terrorist organizations promoting anti-Western agenda. While acknowledging the issue of insecurity in the Sahel, arguments for a southward spread of terrorist Islamist organizations are based on emotional speculation rather than solid empirical foundations. Faced with a post 9/11 revival of a fear of an „evil” pan-Islamism which is also nurtured by the current Global War on Terrorism, there is an urgent need to offer concrete depictions of Muslim organizations operating in rural West Africa in order to decipher the actual motivations of those who choose to join these Muslim organizations. It is also of crucial importance to understand the genuine aspirations, tensions, and transformations that mobilize their members in an era marked by new forms of organization, growing connectivity (e.g. mobile internet access), and a search for a moral, prosperous, and modern life. This urgency is moreover enhanced by the scarcity of ethnographic work on Muslim life tout court in rural West Africa.

This research project thus explores, through multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, four representative case-studies of Muslim organizations (an organization of Muslim women in Niger, a youth organization of modernist Salafi inspiration in Nigeria, a Muslim NGO in Ivory Coast, an organization of new Sufi inspiration in Guinea and Mali) which are expanding their activities in rural areas. The responsible applicant accumulates 40 months of ethnographic fieldwork among Muslims living in rural regions of a pre-crisis southern Mali (2008-2010) and a post-conflict northern Ivory Coast (2014-2018). This demanding ethnographic inquiry will contribute to the following three interrelated thematic perspectives.

  1. New forms of religious organization in West Africa: the emergence of corporate Islam. We will explore processes of “corporatization” that Muslim organizations are currently undergoing; by this we mean a social form of power that acts through bureaucratic practices which are inspired by modern management but crafted locally. 
  2. Muslim activism in rural regions:We will examine, within changing political dynamics, ramifications of corporate forms of Muslim activism into rural “lifeplace”. This new concept helps us to explores the rural as a network of small towns and villages marked by growing connectivity (mass-consumption; mobile internet access).
  3. The phenomenology of religious experience. Rather than putting religious orthodoxy and human freedom in tension, our phenomenological analysis probes a living corporate religiosity whose transformative power emerges in moments framed by ritualized bureaucracy, mundane opportunities, and exclusive identities.

This ethnographic inquiry will offer the first nuanced, detailed, and actors-centered depictions of the contemporary expansion of corporate Islam in rural West Africa. Putting forward the innovative concept of “lifeplace” it will deepen our understanding of an allegedly distant rural life through an exploration of the growing connectivity (concrete, digital, imaginary) between small towns and villages with the wider world. By probing to what extent Islam can be the vector of modern bureaucracy in rural West Africa, this ethnography will contribute to closely decode political stakes, personal aspirations, and opportunities that motivate rural Muslims to get involved and pursue their engagement in corporate Islam within their search for a meaningful life.