Many African universities swept up in Islamic extremism

African higher education systems have become casualties of war, caught in the crossfire of Islamic fundamentalism that cuts across the spectrum of religious and political thought, according to Professor Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

In a policy brief titled “Houses of Wisdom Matter: The responsibility to protect and rebuild higher education in the Arab world”, Barakat and co-author Dr Sansom Milton – a research fellow at the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit of the University of York in the UK – write that many African universities have not escaped conflicts spawned in the Arab world and propelled by radical Islam.

“Deadly clampdowns on student protests and sporadic closure of universities have occurred in North African countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia,” writes Barakat, who is also founding chair of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at York.

This has always not been the case.

A short history

North Africa and the rest of the Arab world in the Middle East were responsible for some of the earliest institutions of higher education, which played a leading role in the global advancement of mathematics, science, literature and philosophy.

Barakat and Milton point out that universities such as al-Zitounah in Tunis (established in 734), al-Karaouine of Fez in Morocco (859) and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University (970) came into being long before Europe’s oldest Bologna University (1088) and Oxford (1096).

“They became known for their progressive attitude and tolerance, serving as a meeting place for different schools of thought that contributed to the understanding of ‘the other’ and as such played an important role in the dissemination of ideas across the Mediterranean and beyond.”

While Afro-Arab universities from the 1950s continued to produce elite graduates with the advanced skills necessary to implement ambitious modernisation and industrialisation strategies, the study argues, the situation seems to have changed in the last two decades.

“Since the 1990s higher education has regressed across the region, both in terms of its overall contribution to knowledge creation as well as to nation-building,” the study asserts.

Notably, this was the beginning of the massification and marketisation of higher education in Africa, usually driven by quantity rather than quality, and teaching rather than research.

Arab Spring

With the advent of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010, and the vital role students and universities played in mobilising public opinion in North Africa, there was hope that increased academic freedom in higher education would become a catalyst for social and political change – not just in the Arab world but in other developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Unfortunately, this optimism evaporated with the descent of post-Qaddafi Libya into violence and brutal attacks orchestrated against ordinary people by al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – terror groups in East and West Africa that are linked to the Islamic State.

Tragically, higher education in Africa is now caught up in mayhem that emanated from the Middle East and from local radical groups that exploit Islam for political and social ends. In Libya, for instance, higher education institutions, communities and systems have been shattered by systemic conflicts.

According to Milton, for the past several years students and faculty in most universities in Libya have felt constrained in an environment of multiple threats and no rule of law.

In his 2013 PhD thesis, “The Neglected Pillar of Recovery: A study of higher education in post-war Iraq and Libya”, Milton describes how ideological battles have been fought in universities.

“Higher education in several universities in North Africa has in some contexts become an arena for contests between competing social forces and ideologies including secularism, religious conservatism, liberalism and traditionalism,” says Milton.

Amid robust calls for political, economic and social justice, narrow religious considerations have often taken centre stage.

For instance in some universities, debates on issues such as democracy, the fight against corruption, women's rights and higher education quality and relevance, have been replaced by linear issues such as whether to ban or not to ban Islamic headscarves for female students.

Joblessness, inequality is recruitment fodder

The inability of graduates to find gainful employment and growing economic inequalities that prevent many young graduates from attaining social status in society, have provided fodder for the recruitment of university students into the ranks of militant politico-religious orders.

The jobless graduate trend is creating massive resentment of higher education in many countries.

“The feeling of deprivation coupled with a sense of injustice is giving birth to anger and readiness to reject the existing system and challenge it and even to overthrow it using violence,” says Professor Alexander De Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in his study Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa.

Across the continent, new religious movements that include Pentecostal churches and other Christian charismatic groups, notably driven by young university graduates, have sprung up with the idea of empowering the youth.

While Christian students have been using non-violent means to alter their status in society, their Muslim counterparts have been joining the ranks of radical Islamists that mix liberation politics with religious revival.

Unlike Christian pacifist groups, Islamists have been uncompromising on issues related to the legitimacy of secular laws, ethical norms and the prevailing national, regional and even global economic systems.

Extreme Islamist groups lack uniformity or any unified movement, and draw on religion’s vast display of denominations, sects and sub-sects as well as members’ ethnic and national identities.

There has thus been no need for the massive export of terror cadres from countries, with recruitment largely banking on the dynamism of local Islamist elites.

Boko Haram and al-Shabaab

This has been the case with Boko Haram, the Islamic radical sect from northeast Nigeria that appeared on the horizon in 2001 and has been carrying out terror attacks since 2009.

The origin of the Islamist sect with a calling card that loosely translates into ‘Western education is forbidden’, may be traced to an Islamic revival group formed by Muslim students at the University of Maiduguri who felt dissatisfied with Western-style education.

Well-known spiritual leaders of the terror group that has attacked schools and tertiary institutions and has killed and kidnapped students and civilians include Abubakar Lawan and Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf.

Contrary to belief in some quarters that Boko Haram’s membership is dominated by poor groups in rural and urban areas in northeast Nigeria, Professor Ufo Okeke Uzodike, head of the school of politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, says this is not the case.

“Beyond the veneer of lower social class, Boko Haram’s membership cuts across a broad spectrum and extends to former university lecturers, bankers, university undergraduates and graduates, political elites and migrants from neighbouring countries,” says Uzodike in a study, Boko Haram Terrorism in Nigeria: Causal factors and central problematic.

Boko Haram’s success in recruiting from universities is not an isolated case. Al-Shabaab, the highly militant Islamist group operating from Somalia, has in the recent past extended its reach to recruit in Kenyan universities.

According to Isaac Ochieng, director of the National Counter Terrorism Centre in Kenya, al-Shabaab has been recruiting higher education students into violent Islamic fundamentalism at an alarming rate.

“There is increased recruitment and indoctrination of the youth into terrorism cells and we have intelligence that al-Shabaab is targeting brilliant students,” Ochieng said recently.

In April this year, al-Shabaab staged a brutal assault on Garissa University College, 365 kilometres east of the capital Nairobi, killing 147 people, most of them non-Muslim students.

“The attack on Garissa College was undoubtedly a sombre reminder of just how vulnerable higher education institutions in Africa are to determined acts of terrorism,” write Barakat and Milton.

The emerging scenario

While African universities have not suffered such massive infrastructural damage as those in the Middle East – notably in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen – the emerging scenario is that universities in North Africa and some Sub-Saharan African countries should be wary of the spread of radical Islamist groups as fronted by Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

The crux of the matter is that Islamists and other religious fundamentalist movements regard secularism as politically decadent and a social failure.

According to the Pretoria-headquartered Institute for Security Studies, while religious radicalism in Côte d’Ivoire has not reached the scale seen in Nigeria and Mali, there are indicators that hardline Pentecostalism might in future clash with radical Wahhabi Islam that has strong connections with the Hezbollah movement in the Middle East.

Nigeria is working with its neighbours to defeat Boko Haram, but the situation is different in the Horn of Africa where Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan are confronted by violent radical groups, some of which are not even linked to al-Shabaab.

According to Abdisaid Ali, a former cabinet secretary in the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, most of those Islamists were trained in Gulf States.

“Interestingly, in the eyes and the mind of the ordinary Muslim in the Horn of Africa, you are either supporting opportunistic secular regimes or religious purists,” says Ali.

There are indications that with the existing poor record of governance in most countries in Africa, disgruntled Islamic communities will be caught in the dynamic and potent force of radicalisation.

Many university students will be trapped in this quagmire, as for several decades now higher education has regressed across the region.

Barakat and Milton point out that this decline has not gone unnoticed by policy-makers, as witnessed at the African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar last March. But African governments appear to have limited options to decide whether university students should be trained for nation building or become foot soldiers for extremist religious interventions.


This article is utterly insulting and offending to Islam. The writer seems to have, to say the least, a biased view of Islam. He equates the work of people who say they are Muslims to the work and behaviour of the majority of Muslims who are, whether he admits it or not, peaceful.

Of course he sees Christians as the good guys who defend their ideas peacefully. Beyond the daily attacks we Muslims have to endure, we have to read this kind of contribution. Your site, as an “academic“ one, should filter what it publishes. I wonder what would you have done if the article‘s title had been “Many African universities swept up in Christian extremism”?

Samir Hachani