In Review

Writing Africa into Islamic Studies

An Interview with Ousmane Oumar Kane

Lisanne Norman, a graduate student in the Department of African  and African American Studies at Harvard University, sat down with Ousmane Oumar Kane to discuss his most recent book, on Senegalese  immigrants in New York City, and how his work challenges the ways the field of Islamic studies has been structured. Kane joined Harvard Divinity School in July 2012 as the first Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society.

First, how have you found settling into Harvard?

I was delighted to be offered this position and I accepted it enthusiastically for at least two reasons. There are people here whose work I found very interesting and I welcome the opportunity to interact with them closely. Second, this position, although titled “Professor in Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society,” is focused on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. This has been a marginalized field in Islamic studies, partly due to the division of labor in academia. The study of Islam has been primarily conducted in Middle Eastern studies, and the study of sub-Saharan Africa in African studies. Islam in Africa was somehow ghettoized. Students of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa did accomplish high quality academic scholarly research, but their work was marginalized and most of it was not published. Until recently, 90 percent of books published on Islam dealt with the Arab world, yet Arabs represent only 20 percent of the global Muslim population.

What percentage do African Muslims represent?

Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa represent approximately 15 percent of the global Muslim populations, and the whole African continent would be more than that—roughly 450 to 500 million, which is one-third of the world’s Muslim population. So I am thrilled to join the Islamic studies community at Harvard, and I look forward to doing more research on Islam in Africa, interacting with other scholars of Islam, and giving greater visibility to the study of Islam in Africa. Although certainly being here [in Cambridge] has been a bit of a challenge because it is a little bit cold!

That’s true!

I come from Columbia, where I taught at the School of International and Public Affairs for ten years. SIPA is a public policy school. Although I did teach some Islam, students there had different expectations and different interests than students of Islam here at Harvard. I look forward to developing new courses, and I am also exploring the possibilities of collaboration with colleagues at other departments and institutes with shared research interests.


The Homeland Is the Arena: Religion, Transnationalism, and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America, by Ousmane Oumar Kane. Oxford University Press, USA, 336 pages, $35 paper.

Photo of Ousmane Kane

Ousmane Oumar Kane

Your background is in political science, and The Homeland Is the Arena is an incredibly interdisciplinary work, involving ethnographic fieldwork and migrant studies. What drew you to this research topic, and how did you navigate these different approaches?

I consider my main field of research to be the study of Islam and Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa, a field which I engage from an interdisciplinary perspective. I’m historically minded, I was trained as a political scientist and also as an Islamicist and an Arabist. Sufism and Sufi orders are a dominant expression of spirituality in Africa. I started my career researching Sufism in West Africa, and, more particularly, the intellectual history of Sufism. In the 1990s, I paid attention to Muslim globalization because those Sufi orders that I studied in the African context were spreading in other parts of the world through migration, particularly here in the United States.

In 2000–01, I was a postdoc at Yale studying African Sufi orders in the United States, thus my interest in migration and diaspora studies. I joined the faculty of Columbia in 2002, where I taught a course on international migration and development for many years. Living on the Upper West Side of New York City, I was able to conduct ethnographic fieldwork leading to this book on Senegalese immigrants and the role that religion plays not just in the process of settlement, but also in the building of ties with the homeland. I studied the various aspects of the Senegalese migration—ethnic, occupational, gender, generational, above all religious, and particularly Islam, because 95 percent of the Senegalese are Muslim and an overwhelming majority of them identify with Sufism. I tried to understand the role that religion plays in this process of settlement and building connections with the homeland. That is how I became interested in the larger issues of diaspora and transnationalism.

What I found most fascinating in your book was the strong connection these Senagalese communities maintain with the homeland, the enormous influence their remittances have, and what this translates into within the larger Senegalese religious community. Is this strong relationship with the homeland still continuing with second- and third-generation immigrants?

You are quite right that these immigrant communities are having a major impact on the development of religion in the homeland because of the money that they remit and because they have also created NGO-type religious organizations that are making a major contribution to development, including the building of hospitals, schools, wells, and sanitary systems in some saintly cities.

Since the first generation of Senegalese settled here in the 1980s, the second generation is now graduating from college and starting families. As I was conducting my research, this second generation was still quite young. It has been assumed that as immigrants settled, the second and third generations will assimilate into American society, but we need to have more studies on the second generation of the post-1965 migrants in order to provide a full picture of what their connections to the homeland will be. And when I say more studies, I mean in general, not just on the Senegalese. As you know, in the United States there have been two great waves of migration in the modern period. The first was at the turn of the twentieth century, when about 27 million came, and the second was from the mid-1960s to today, when about 25 million people have arrived. The second wave was much more diverse ethnically and religiously, because 80 percent of the migrants came from Asia and Latin America, and there were many Muslims and Hindus among them. Because the second generation has still not yet been adequately studied, we do not know what the trends are. Will they integrate, will they assimilate into Middle America or assimilate into something else, or will they retain their ethnic identities? These are questions with which scholars of immigration studies are still grappling.

If the second generation doesn’t pick up the mantle, and these development efforts are not sustained by the state, then what will happen?

Well, it’s not that the state doesn’t do anything, the state does contribute, but as you know, these countries have limited resources and sometimes they are not used in efficient ways. There are still regions without an electrical grid or power supply, or even running water, though it is interesting that natives of those regions form the largest segments of the diaspora. There is a very strong sense of community among these migrants. When someone comes here, he will try to bring a cousin. While that is arguably true for other immigrant communities, it is quite prevalent among immigrants from northern or central Senegal. And these people send remittances that equal about 7 percent of the gross national product of Senegal. The Senegalese diaspora is making a difference in helping people survive and access healthcare and education, and, in the process, contributing to building human capital, which is something very critical that our countries need.

However, their relationship with America is very ambiguous because, on the one hand, they see it as a land of opportunity where success comes with hard work, but on the other hand, they also fear change and the Americanization of their children. They feel that religion and culture, whatever that means, are very important to preserve. They fear that their kids who go to school here may abandon cherished homeland cultural norms, particularly gender norms. Many send their children home for awhile to study, but above all to learn the religion, because they fear that otherwise their kids will acculturate. The paradox is that even people who are not particularly religiously observant strive to provide Islamic education to their children. There are also Senegalese Christians, mostly Roman Catholic, but most are based in Washington, DC, and I must confess that I haven’t studied them enough to know what the dynamics are. They probably do not have the same concerns about religion as Muslims do.

Another thing that struck me was your discussion of the transformation of gender dynamics within this community. You mention Americanization, and the greater public awareness of domestic abuse. You also discuss how many of the women have higher incomes because of jobs such as hair braiding. Is this causing a lot of tension within the community?

Indeed, there is a crisis in gender relations that has many causes. One is women’s participation in the labor force, which undermines the material foundations of patriarchy within these communities. It is atypical in the homeland for women to have higher incomes than men, and Senegalese men are not well prepared for that. There is also the issue of who should support the household materially. According to homeland traditional cultural norms, the man is supposed to pay for the rent and maintain the family. If you marry a woman, it is your obligation in Islam to support her, regardless of how much money she makes. She is under no obligation to contribute. That doesn’t mean, however, that women are not contributing. Women are supporting their larger extended family, and they also make gifts to the family of the husband on a regular basis. Senegalese men who struggle to make ends meet tend to believe that women are not contributing enough, and this is controversial among Senegalese couples.

In addition, because there is greater gender justice here, Senegalese women will not accept some forms of physical and emotional abuse. They renegotiate gender relations and demand greater respect from men. Some men resist these new gender dynamics, and this leads to crisis and often to separation. Of course, intimate partner violence is also perpetrated among nonimmigrant Americans. In the United States there are laws in place to deal with perpetrators, but in the African homeland, men may easily perpetrate domestic violence and get away with it.

Another source of conflict is the irregular working hours. Many Senegalese men work as cab drivers or in the food industry or as security guards, and often work very late. Likewise, 75 percent of Senegalese women work in the hair-braiding industry, also working long hours, sometimes around the clock in the high season to make more money. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for romance or for the performance of inherited gender roles.

Will the second and third generations uphold traditional gender norms from the homeland? Probably not. Even in the homeland, the younger generation is developing different views about gender relations. There is a greater participation of women in the household decision-making process, particularly among educated people with higher incomes. So, changing gender dynamics are not just the consequence of migration. The pace of change is faster here partly because many women immigrants from Senegal come from rural areas. When they arrive and join the labor force as hair braiders, they make a lot of money, which frustrates Senegalese men. Men and women are now acclimating to new gender norms created by a new political economy. Worthy of note is the fact that many immigrants from French West Africa who settled in the United States in the mid-1980s were illiterate. In contrast, African immigrants from English-speaking countries of West Africa like Ghana and Nigeria tend to be highly educated. Most of them came here to pursue higher education. As a result, they have higher incomes.

I remember in the 1990s the hair-braiding salons in New York up along 116th Street, out in Bed-Stuy and even in Fort Greene, where I’m from. There used to be a Senegalese restaurant called Jolof on Fulton, and there were also a number of Senegalese businesses in Fort Greene.

In Brooklyn, the Senegalese enclave is called “Futa town” because of the high concentration of people who come from the Futa region in northern Senegal, which is the homeland of Fulfude-speaking people. They formed a majority of those Africans living in Brooklyn. Whereas in Harlem, in “Little Senegal” or “Little Africa,” the majority of Senegalese come from central Senegal and are speakers of Wolof. There are also people from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Guinea, but the Wolof-speaking Senegalese are the majority.

Switching gears to current events occurring in Muslim communities in West Africa, like Mali or northern Nigeria: Are there any lessons from your research that will help us to understand what is unfolding in these regions?

Before colonialism, there existed a vigorous Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa. The history of Arabic writing in West Africa spans a period of 800 years. We know that from the fifteenth century on there is an established tradition of local authorship, people who have written in Arabic or in African languages using the Arabic script. There is a huge archive of this material in Timbuktu, which used to be a major educational center in the fourteenth century: between 150 and 180 schools were operating in Timbuktu before the discovery of the Americas. But Timbuktu is just the tip of the iceberg; in the whole Sahelian region from Senegal to the Red Sea where Islam spread, so did the use of the Arabic language or the Arabic script. Some used Arabic to educate people in languages like Hausa and Fulfude. Muslim intellectuals provided religious education to their followers, and some mobilized people to speak against oppression, heavy taxation, and enslavement. The Islamic archives of Africa contain a lot of scholarly treaties as well as notes recording historical events in the margins. They have not been adequately studied because of the division of labor in the study of Islam and Africa I already described.

Thus, there are major flaws in some of the writings about the production of knowledge in Africa, because their authors have no awareness of the existence of the Islamic intellectual tradition south of the Sahara. Arabic has been the language of administration and instruction in some of these countries since before European colonialism. When European colonial rule was established, a new educational system based on European languages (e.g., French, English) was created and became prominent. This also contributed to hide the Islamic factor in African history that I think really needs to be documented. Though this field is attracting a growing number of scholars, still 90 percent of the Islamic archive has not yet been studied adequately. Most of the work so far has consisted in producing catalogs of manuscripts or digitizing manuscripts. Manuscripts dating from the nineteenth century reveal that Sufism had became a dominant expression of Islamic spirituality.

This relates to current events because Muslim jihadis who occupied northern Mali during the entire year 2012 challenged the tradition of Sufi Islam in the region. They believe that Sufism is a deviant form of Islam and that building shrines for Sufi saints is tantamount to idol worship. They destroyed some of the shrines, burned manuscripts, and took other manuscripts with them when the French reconquered northern Mali in January 2013. It’s not very clear how much damage was done because the information is contradictory; some say very little, while others report that two thousand manuscripts are missing. The Islamicists apparently took the hard drives of most of the computers on which manuscripts were digitized. A new, intolerant vision of Islam, which has hitherto been unknown in the Sahel, was brought by these jihadis coming from Algeria who established themselves in northern Mali. Mali, as you know, is a big state with a huge territory and a history of great difficulty policing its territory. Jihadis established niches in places such as mountainous regions and began to prosper through kidnapping and the drug economy. For more than ten years, the international community overlooked the extent to which they were a threat to security. In the last decade, they received tens of millions of euros and dollars in ransom.

So these groups are extremely well funded.

Yes. The leaders of these jihadi groups are well educated and have received sophisticated training in guerrilla warfare. They work with local Malian communities and occasionally subcontract criminal jobs to those communities. They also invest in the legitimate economy. Some jihadis are involved in drug trafficking, because West Africa has become an important area for transiting drugs from South America to Europe. The jihadis may be just a few thousand people, organized around brigades of a few hundred people each. But they have accumulated sophisticated weapons and tracking devices and lots of money. Had they not been stopped in January 2013, they would have conquered the whole of Mali today and possibly parts of neighboring countries.

Do you feel that there is a greater instability within the region of West Africa now?

Building strong and stable states has been a preoccupation in West Africa since independence. Religious intolerance is not unprecedented, because there have been some fanatics there for a while. However, they have now linked up with groups like AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) that have provided them with sophisticated military training and significant resources. Now they can conduct guerilla warfare and perform acts such as suicide bombings. If even the U.S. has not been able to help Iraq and Afghanistan defeat these jihadi groups, imagine a country like Mali or Nigeria being able to do so. Also, the jihadis of northern Mali have now linked up with Boko Haram in Nigeria. A few years ago, suicide bombing was unknown south of the Sahara, but now it has become commonplace.

What factors have contributed to the rapid growth of this phenomenon in West Africa?

I think the globalization of jihad movements is a factor. Now jihadis from all over the world are heading to northern Mali. They are able to move across those porous borders with ease. Another factor is that West African states like Mali are weak. It has been argued, and rightly so, that African states with large land mass and/or huge populations face very unusual challenges in policing their populations. They tend to be dysfunctional and they fare poorly in most development indicators. Smaller states tend to do better. Countries like Mali and Niger in the Sahel are among the poorest countries in the world. They have huge land masses, with mountainous and desert regions, and they have very poor communication infrastructures. Insurgent groups can hide easily and defeating them can become impossible, or near impossible, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The presence of so-called Arab Afghans in Mali is a real problem. These people were trained by Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA in Afghanistan where they fought the Soviet Army. Their reach was limited to the Arab world until recently, but now they have spread in the Sahel. Of the groups which conquered northern Mali, the most prominent is AQIM, which used to be called GSPC—Groupe Salafi pour la Predication et le Jihad (Salafi Group for Preaching and Jihad). In Algeria, GSPC operatives faced a strong state that suppressed its members mercilessly. GSPC members began to redeploy to Mali in early 2000. They were able to establish camps in Mali, where the state is weak and incapable of securing its territory. I think that the international community, and more particularly the Community of West African States (ECOWAS), was not really aware of the security challenge that this group posed. Nobody thought that they would attempt to conquer the Malian state, but they did, with the help of Turareg insurgent groups.

West African states still do not have the resources to deal adequately with these kinds of groups. When France intervened militarily in January 2013 to stop the expansion of the jihadis, other West African countries committed to providing troops and logistical support to the peace-keeping mission in Mali, but they could not uphold this commitment. Now they are hoping that the United Nations will send a force to maintain peace. The fact that these countries are very weak and extremely poor makes it easier for terrorist groups to attack them. Some of these jihadi groups provide resources to local populations in the absence of a welfare state, and are thus able to establish strong networks. Defeating the Islamicists in Mali was relatively easy for the French army, but restoring peace will be very difficult because Malian troops are taking revenge against so-called Arabs. They don’t really know who the enemies are. They will find it difficult to deal with unconventional warfare strategies like suicide bombing. The first suicide bombing in Mali took place after the French military intervention. So if you defeat them in combat, they resort to guerilla tactics. I think the region has some serious challenges ahead of it.

One last question: How do you navigate your faith commitment, and what is the role of faith within your research?

That is a very important question. I am a Muslim. I am also Sufi and I grew up in a Sufi family. We practiced Tijaniyya Sufism. While I was in Nigeria doing the research for my first book, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria, I studied a fundamentalist group who were really hostile to Sufism. When they realized that I didn’t have any hidden agenda, that I just wanted to learn and to understand them and publish this research, which would give them some voice, they accepted me.

Of course, members of my own faith community are sometimes not very pleased with my writings. They are more interested in hagiography than in the scientific study of religion. When some people in Senegal read my work, they may question it. Obviously, those of us who write do not say everything, especially when you are dealing with issues that are very personal and you know that there are taboos which people would prefer you not talk about. But the good news is that the focus of my current research (intellectual Islamic thought in Africa and Islamic intellectual production, and the ways in which it contributes to helping us better understand some aspects of African history, and the role of the Islamic scholar) does not pose any significant challenge to my faith. When it comes to looking at micropolitics among the Muslim communities, particularly that community to which you belong, there are sometimes issues you would rather let other scholars deal with. Many scholars approach me to request assistance in working on my community, and I am only too happy to share my resources and knowledge with them.

Ousmane Oumar Kane joined Harvard Divinity School in July 2012 as the first Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society.

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