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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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