Could you tell us more about your background, and why you decided to join REMOBOKO and Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO)?
Before joining ZMO, I was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, and a Part-Time Professor at the University of Ottawa. I completed my Ph.D. in History in 2018 at the Université Laval in Canada.
This position for the Remoboko research group was quite appealing since there is a significant overlap between my research interests and those of the Remoboko project. For instance, I have worked and published on Muslim student associations in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. My research is comparative and explores the history of Islam and Muslim societies in Francophone West Africa from the 1950s to the present. I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo, focusing on Islamic activism among youth and women, their appropriation of media, and Muslim politics. Before joining ZMO, I was also engaged in a research project on Muslim minority communities of Benin and Togo since the late colonial era.
I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a team working on religiosity and higher education in West Africa, and to go beyond the tendency to study Islam and Christianity independently from each other.
How would you describe your current research project, the one you are conducting within the framework of REMOBOKO and ZMO?
At ZMO, my research project is entitled “Salafism and Pentecostalism on University Campuses in Benin and Togo since the 1970s: Lived Religion in ‘Secular’ Contexts.” It examines religiosity on the campus of the Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin and the Université de Lomé in Togo. The project engages four sets of research questions and analytical perspectives.
The first set of questions is related to Christian-Muslim Encounters. Studying competition, rivalry, conflict and coexistence between different religious groups on campus is an important part of my research. Are public universities contributing to religious polarization especially with the rise of Salafism and Pentecostalism?
However, I also want to approach religious pluralism beyond the conflict/interfaith dialogue or violence/tolerance dichotomy. I’m particularly interested in how Christian-Muslim encounters are shaping how the faithful “perform” their religion and can adopt similar modes of proselytizing, media practices and organizational techniques. In other words, the interplays of borrowing and boundary-making, sharing and exclusion, mimicry, etc.
Related to the focus on how religiosity is experienced in multi-religious settings is the “lived religion” approach, I will assess the plurality of ways in which university students practice their religion and make their religious identity meaningful in their everyday lives.
Basically, the study seeks to explain why religion now occupies such an important place in students’ lives and in the academic sphere, which was formerly dominated by leftist and secular ideologies.
What does this greater religiosity say about students’ aspirations for a better life? Understanding the process of becoming a religious activist through life trajectories will be central
Thirdly, my project will reflect on how religious activism, ostentatious religious signs and markers, as well as ongoing debates on campuses about the role of religion in the public sphere affect the university as a secular educational institution. How has the rise of religious activism on campuses redefined the Western academic model of the public university and its secular intellectual culture? What does it tell us about the historical trajectory of the university in these two countries?
And related to this is the issue of governing religion and religiosity on campus; how have university administrators and faculty managed religious accommodations and regulated the growing religiosity on campus?
The last set of research questions is what I’m calling “The making of new elites.” Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa have historically been highly politicized institutions. They have acted as an important vehicle of elite formation and reproduction.
I want to examine the sociopolitical roles assumed by this young religious elite trained in secular universities. More specifically, to what extent are religious groups calling into question the leadership of “traditional” secular student unions as the main representative body of all students?
I also want to access the capacity for Christian or Muslim student groups on campus to express divergent opinions in relation to the discourses of the “official” or “self-proclaimed” representatives of their religious community.
What inspired you to start writing about student activism and religiosity on university campuses?
The large body of scholarship on student activism in West Africa has tended to focus on revolutionary and secular ideologies while overlooking religion despite the increasing number of religious groups on campuses since the 1990s.
Recent studies have stressed the importance of studying universities to understand contemporary religious dynamics in the region. Regarding Benin and Togo, much of the literature concerns the key role of student protests in the advent of the national conferences in the early 1990s
Surprisingly, little research has investigated religiosity and higher education despite the enduring role of religion in the social and political life of both countries. Historically, the Catholic Church has occupied a dominant position in Benin and Togo. However, since the 1990s and 2000s, the thriving charismatic Pentecostal and evangelical movements have exerted a growing political influence.
Missionaries from Nigeria and Ghana played an important role in the popularity of Pentecostalism in Cotonou and Lomé. The influence of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements at the state level is particularly visible in Benin. In 1996, Mathieu Kérékou, the former Marxist dictator, made a political comeback. “Kérékou II”, as he was popularly known, appeared as a new and converted man who had subjected himself to the power of God. He won the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections. Kérékou successor, Thomas Boni Yayi, was also a born-again Christian and a pastor in a church of the Assemblies of God in Cotonou
While the Muslim community of Benin and Togo have historically played a very limited role in national politics, recent events have attracted attention for an apparent Islamic awakening. In Togo, Muslim leaders played an important role in the opposition movement behind the anti-government protests that broke out in 2017–2018. In Benin, in 2019, a well-known imam from Cotonou was elected to the National Assembly.
Finally, I think this topic is important because 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 mostly unknown.
Many analysts and journalists have highlighted the recent spread of Salafism and Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs in the region, which is misleading and problematic in many ways. By focusing on the more fundamental and longer-term dynamics of social and religious change in the region, I want to offer a corrective to this focus on the “radicalization” of Muslims.