Madagascar, Islamists Exploit Poverty To Gain Converts In Christian Land

Islamism is gaining ground on the island historically dominated by Christianity and traditional religions by offering free Koranic education in exchange for conversion.

A mosque in Porte Bergé, Madagascar
A mosque in Porte Bergé, Madagascar
Renaud Girard

VOHIPENO — At first sight, Vohipeno is a poor, but charming rural town covered with bougainvilleas and enveloped in the spicy fragrance of cloves, the main product of this southeastern stretch of Madagascar's coast. Without electricity and shaded by palm trees or traveler's trees, the houses are all made of wood, their rough facades faded by the weather.

Heading down toward the shoreline, we come across the white minaret of a worn mosque, attached to a brand new building of grey concrete. A furtive silhouette in a black abaya sees us, and disappears inside. Built adjacent to the Vatomasina (Sacred Stone) mosque, and originally paid for in 1990 by Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, is the new Islamic School of Success. It towers over a dusty soccer pitch surrounded by wobbly shops, where laughing young boys in rags chase behind a half-deflated ball amid strewn garbage.

But on this Tuesday afternoon, some of Vohipeno's children don't have time for fun. About 45 young boys, aged 7 to 14, sit cross-legged on the floor, with their stained djellabas and skullcaps, in the big, dark room of the Islamic school, endlessly reciting verses from the Koran. They do so in Arabic or in Urdu, neither of which they can understand. It evokes the madrassas for poor young boys in Pakistan, on the road from Islamabad to Peshawar: ultra-strict boys-only schools that have produced many jihadists.

These young boys are all free boarders, placed there by their families, who are too poor to support them. Some even came in directly from the street, where they had been begging. "It's very easy for a child to convert and become a Muslim for life: He only needs to come here, take a shower and pronounce the Shahada the Islamic profession of faith," explains Nadeem Dolip, a Mauritian with a long black beard who heads the new institution.

A true missionary

Dolip is a true Islamic missionary. He does not come from these parts, but learned the local language, Malagasy. "Things are easy for me. I am a servant of truth. It's my life. And the only truth is in the Koran," he says, his eyes illuminated by an apparent inner fire. Born on the smaller island nation of Mauritius, Dolip went on to study in France where he obtained a degree in physics. He also began visiting the mosque in Montfermeil, east of Paris, known for its radical preachings. He married a Kabyle woman, with whom he had two girls. But the marriage eventually fell apart and Dolip left France, bitter, and set out for this lost corner of Madagascar.

Dolip does not adhere to the principles of equality between men and women held by the French Republic. For him, women "complement men, but are not equal to men." He does not understand Saudi Arabia's recent decision to allow women to drive either. "Sure, women are technically capable of driving a car, but it's the freedom they're given to do so that is a problem," he argued. "Women don't know how to handle their freedom."

As we push further into Vohipeno's suburbs, we come across the brand new 4x4 Toyota — compliments of UNICEF — of the regional head of national education. A plump and affable man, Henrilys Rakotounarivo is conducting his inspection round. His task is to control what is taught in these Islamic schools, which have mushroomed over the past decade. His predecessor, Onesi Ratsituvahana, was dismissed last year for having planned, without authorization from the Education Ministry, a trip to Saudi Arabia to raise funds for Koranic schools. The incident sparked an investigation that led to the closing down of 14 schools across the island.

"Islamist preachers use the population's poverty to expand their flocks," Rakotounarivo says. "They're banking on the fact that the schools are almost free of charge and have no minimum education requirements. In exchange, they only demand that pupils convert to Islam. And schoolgirls are required to wear a veil."

In Madagascar, Christian schools do not require that students get baptized, but the fees are higher. So is the academic performance, with their rate for achieving a 10th-grade diploma at over 90%, compared to 20% to 30% for Islamic schools.

The island nation is majority Christian — Photo: Luc Legay

In May, a U.S. delegation came to Vohipeno to check the effectiveness of school infrastructures subsidized by UNICEF. Did the delegation include CIA agents? No one knows for sure. What is certain, however, is that they came with drones. At the time, a headline from Madagascar's leading daily L'Express read: "Koranic schools under American surveillance."

Vohipeno's young mayor is Muslim, which is not surprising since the town has long been home to a significant Muslim community founded by tradesmen from Zanzibar. But the mayor's background is different. Born into a very poor Catholic farming milieu, he was a very good student and his family worked hard so he could complete his education, but university was out of their reach. Then came a timely proposal from Saudi Arabia: He could study there for four years, entirely free of charge — he just had to convert to Islam. For Madagascan students, Saudi Arabia has become the second destination of choice for studying abroad, still well behind France.

A nurse of about 60, whom we met in the scrubland as she was doing her rounds, describes the situation to us, asking not to be named. "Ten years ago, there wasn't a single veiled woman to be seen. Now they're everywhere. They get subsidies in exchange for wearing a veil." She adds that more than 100 unauthorized mosques have been opened in this district alone.

This surge of Islamic piety funded by organizations in the Gulf or the Indian subcontinent is miles away from the tolerant, traditional syncretic form of Madagascan Islam dating back to the 13th century and representing 6% of the population. The change worries traditional moderate Muslims like Mohamed Zubaïr, the imam of the Manakara mosque. He was accused of being a bad Muslim by a new, rival mosque because he distributed food to Muslims and Christians without distinction during a charity event. "They're takfiris! They call anybody who doesn't think like them apostate. They're under the influence of preachers from Pakistan, building mosques and madrassas everywhere, without government authorization," says the imam, whose wife does not wear a veil.

A chronic weakness

At the rival new mosque near the end of the afternoon prayer, we find a majority of long-bearded Pakistani and Indian worshipers, freshly arrived on the Great Island on Turkish Airlines flights. They only speak Urdu, and a little English. They say they are affiliated with Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary movement, and that they only believe in pacific preaching.

In Madagascar, a predominantly Christian island since the 19th century, (a Pew Research Center study found that 85% of the island is Christian) tourism and food industry entrepreneurs do not hide their concern over the spread of Islamism. They are dismayed by how Salafism has grown in the neighboring archipelago of Comoros. They wonder about the repercussions of the unbridled proliferation of mosques and madrassas on the southeastern coast and on the northwestern side of the island, between Diégo Suarez and Mahajanga.

With a territory as big as France and Belgium combined but a population of only 23 million, where a mere 15% of homes have electricity, the island of Madagascar is ideal prey for Islamist organizations for three reasons: the population's extreme poverty, the chronic weakness of its government and its strategic position between Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The Americans have understood this well: Next to Ivato international airport, they have built an immense, ultramodern embassy covered with antennas. Very discreetly, without shouting it from the rooftops, they have indeed placed this unique Island under surveillance.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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