International Opinion

Minister Pantami’s case and the ‘War on Terror Witch hunt’ in Nigeria

By Dr Andrea Brigaglia

Sheikh Pantami

Following the publication of a Daily Independent article alleging that Minister Pantami is on a United States’ “terrorist watchlist”, the Nigerian social media started to circulate quotes of an article I had published in 2019, where I analysed some of the public speeches Pantami had given in the early-to-mid 2000s. From the social media, references to that article have filtered to the national newspapers.
I remain committed to my criticism of what I see as the many problematic aspects of those speeches, but I believe that the core of my analysis is lost in the current mediatic brouhaha.
It is hard to believe that Minister Pantami is currently included in any “United States terror watchlist” as claimed by some. On the contrary, from the late 2000s onwards, Pantami has been a key actor of Nigeria’s de-radicalization programmes earlier conceived (from the early 2000s), in the context of the American “War on Terror”.
But what is the War on Terror, and why do I insist that the latter is the only meaningful context to make sense of the transformation of the content of the public speeches of Minister Pantami and other Nigerian Islamic scholars on Global Jihad; from endorsement, to avoidance, to opposition?
The War on Terror is a complex structure that, by leveraging on the opportunity provided by the emergence of Al-Qaeda’s Global Jihad, aims at empowering the traditional allies of the US in the Middle East (and, by extension, Muslim communities in Africa and Asia); forcing non-aligned countries to cooperate in security partnerships coordinated by the US; and ensuring, through the securitisation of the political landscapes of the latter, US has control over their destinies.
As it is no secret that the main foe of the United States in the Middle East has been and continues to be Iran (as well as, more broadly, Russia-aligned states), the War on Terror could not but translate, amongst other things, in an empowerment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, promoted as the leader of a US-aligned “Sunni block” aimed at checking Iranian influence worldwide. The problem, for the US, was that both the Saudi-aligned religious scholars and the Alqaeda leaders, claimed to be the genuine representatives of the same religious trend within Islam, that is, Salafism. The Saudi War on Terror strategy, therefore, translated into a mission to “purge” global Salafi constituencies from anti-American and pro-Alqaeda sentiments.
Most Nigerian scholars chose the Saudi-aligned camp to the Jihadi-aligned camp, and Pantami is definitely one of them. Embracing the Saudi version of the War on Terror discourse, however, has come at a huge cost. Not only, in fact, it has exposed them to the wrath of their Jihadi opponents (as we all know, Minister Pantami himself has been the object of direct death threats by Shekau). The problem was also that such Saudi discourse was based on an ultra-monarchic political theology that labeled as “terrorist” any Islamic group that deviates from the principle of absolute obedience to the King. It openly branded as haram, in plain fatwas signed by scholarsBin Baz and al-Fawzaan, things like constitutionalism, elections, democracy. Mainstream Islamic political parties that, like the Muslim Brothers of Egypt, agitated for a constitutional Islamic Republic, were thus labelled as outright kuffar (unbelievers) and treated as equivalents of Alqaeda. Independent-minded Salafi scholars of Saudi Arabia like Salman al-Ouda, who did not side with Alqaeda but also refused to express uncritical support for the Kingdom, were victimised too: today, al-Ouda is in jail, branded as a “terrorist”, with a death sentence pending on him.
As odiously repressive as it was, the political theology promoted by the Salafi leaders loyal to the Kingdom could, to some extent, guarantee stability in the context of an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. But once it was exported into a constitutional democracy like Nigeria, it became a recipe for chaos. In Nigeria, the fatwas of Bin Baz and Fawzaan against democracy and constitution empowered Yusuf, and disempowered people like Pantami who argued against him.
By imposing the false premise that there is no alternative to the binary option of fanatical Jihadism vs uncritical subservience to the United States’ agenda, the War on Terror discourse has closed any space for a critical, counter-hegemonic, democratic and non-Jihadi Muslim discourse to emerge.
The Suwaye Taliban speech was delivered by Pantami in 2006. At that time, Saudi Arabia was being lacerated by an internecine, intra-Salafi war between Alqaeda-aligned groups (which in 2003, had started a campaign of bombings inside Saudi Arabia); the Saudi-aligned scholars (which approved the Saudi alliance to the US and the repression of dissenting voices); and independent-minded scholars like Salman al-Ouda, who did not align with the Jihadis but were targeted by the Saudi state in the name of the latter’s “War on Terror”. This conflict entirely disappears from Pantami’s Suwaye Taliban speech. By generously distributing his praises, at the same time, to the Saudi Kingdom, to Alqaeda, and to al-Ouda, Pantami was selling the fairy tale of a perfect Salafi utopia made of united ranks of “upholders of the Sunna” engaged in a sincere confrontation with the unbelievers.
Pantami is no “terrorist monster”. He is a man who, in 2006, was trapped in the volatile world of the global Salafi da‘wa in the twenty-first-century.
Those who would like to see him stoned today, should honestly ponder: are they so sure that the closets of the Christian preachers of Zonkwa or Yelwa Shendam are cleaner than his?
Those who, on the contrary, label any attempt to scrutinise his speeches as a conspiracy to “crucify” him, should remember how they were cheering when El-Zakzaky was victimised as the “terrorist”, the coach of Muhammad Yusuf on Boko Haram, the epitome of all evil. Was theirs not “War on Terror witchhunt 101”?
No good come from witchhunts, whether addressed at Zakzaky or Pantami. My article was concluded by the following call, which I would like to make once again:
“Nigerian Muslims will continue to create their future by negotiating between utopias and lived realities, and both Salafis and Shiites can play a positive role in this process. For this to happen, three steps seem to be necessary: (1) the Nigerian government should strive to relate to both Iran and Saudi Arabia (as well as Russia and the US) with cautious cordiality, carefully avoiding being turned into a new playground for Middle Eastern geo-politics and sectarian wars; (2) Zakzaky should be released and undergo a fair trial, while the IMN should be reintegrated into the wider Muslim community and allowed to contribute to the national debate (being also freely criticised by other Muslims when necessary); (3) the mainstream Nigerian Salafi leadership should undertake an honest process of clarification to its own public, of the tumultuous ideological shift of which it has been the theatre over the last two decades.
When I wrote the above lines, I was sceptical that anything like this was bound to happen anytime soon. I hope the time will be ripe one day.
Dr Brigaglia, University of Naples “L’Orientale”

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