Religious Activism on Campuses in Togo and Benin: Christian and Muslim Students Navigating Authoritarianism and Laïcité, 1970–2023

Project funded by the ​”Remoboko” Leibniz Junior Research Group (2021-2024)

Mosque of the Association des Élèves et Étudiants Musulmans au Togo (Université de Lomé)

Although religious organisations have coexisted with student unions at the Université de Lomé and the Université d’Abomey-Calavi since the 1970s, much of the literature has tended to focus on the role of student protests in triggering national conferences in Benin and Togo in the early 1990s, overlooking religion. Based on interviews with different generations of activists and the press in both countries, this book uncovers the neglected history of Christian and Muslim student associations on these campuses, originally strongholds of leftist, anti-imperialist and secular ideologies. It analyses the emergence of these associations under a one-party dictatorship in Togo and a Marxist-Leninist regime in Benin, and explores the implications of growing religiosity for these public universities as secular institutions.

The history of these associations reveals the campus as a microcosm reflecting wider national socio-political life, while also highlighting the importance of translocal factors in shaping the internal dynamics of these groups. Amidst the massification of university enrolments and rising graduate unemployment in recent decades, faith-based associations have come to offer more than religious guidance. Increasingly, they offer a “social curriculum”, providing a space for socialisation and a set of skills, norms and moral values that complement the secular academic curriculum.

Muslim Minorities in Southern Cities of Benin and Togo

Project funded by a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship (2018-2020)

Central mosque of Fidjrossè (Cotonou, Benin)

This research project examines the understudied Muslim minority communities of southern Benin and Togo since the late colonial era (1950s). While recent reports on the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso have raised fears of jihadism spreading to neighboring states bordering the Gulf of Guinea, including Benin and Togo, Islam in this region remains largely unknown. The project aims to move beyond a reductive focus on “radicalization” by interrogating how Muslims’ political location as a minority in Christian-majority settings affects their experiences, self-understandings, and political stakes. It also examines the plurality of ways in which Muslim youth and women make their religious identity meaningful in their everyday lives and beyond established analytical categories (Sufi, reformist, Salafi).

Youth and Women’s Islamic Activism in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso​

Project funded by the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture and the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Doctoral Scholarship (2013-2018)

Ouagadougou 2015

This research project is a comparative historical study of the role of Muslims from marginalized social groups in the transformations of Islam in these two countries over the past sixty years. The parallel religious demography of the two countries—with Islam as the main religion (60% in Burkina Faso; 43% in Côte d’Ivoire), but with Muslims historically playing a subordinate political role—makes the comparison of these two specific cases compelling. The research draws on a combination of sources, including twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in Abidjan and Ouagadougou (2011; 2014–15), as well as thousands of archival materials, national newspaper articles, and documents produced by Islamic organizations.

The central argument is that intergenerational and gender relations are at the heart of the dynamics that have (re)structured the Islamic field in recent decades, and that these relations are intimately linked to issues of power and religious authority. I assess the individual and collective capacity of youth and women to both challenge and conform to social constraints through Islamic activism. I show that the generational and gender differences that strongly favored male leaders in both countries in the 1970s and 1980s have moderated over time, although tensions remain. This is particularly evident in Burkina Faso where strong gerontocratic principles still prevail within Islamic organizations, and showing deference to the older generation often remains an important social norm. Recent developments in both countries also reflect the diversification of types and sources of religious authority observed elsewhere in the contemporary Muslim world. More individuals and groups from different segments of society now claim the right to speak in the name of Islam, including youth and women. Francophone “Muslim intellectuals” have been at the forefront of the emergence of a “civil Islam,” developing new forms of civic engagement and entrepreneurship for socio-economic development.

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