By Mathew K Jallow
There were no rumors, no discussions, and not even official clues as to what was about to happen to the Gambia. Last week, when Yahya Jammeh said, at a Brufut meeting, a coastal town sixteen miles south of the capital city, Banjul, that “Gambia will become an Islamic state,” his ambiguity was obvious, but reactions to him were swift and scathing. Listening to Yahya Jammeh speak, the sense is that his statement was more of an aspiration than an actual declaration of the Gambia as an Islamic state, but that did not prevent the standard media and the social media onslaught, at once both sensationalizing and internationalizing his statement; and adding to its confusion and ambiguity. Read literally, Yahya Jammeh’s Brufut statement, “Gambia will become an Islamic state” does not seem like an unequivocal declaration. Lost in translation, is Yahya Jammeh’s stated plans of turning the Gambia into an Islamic state, and he is partly to blame for the colossal misinterpretation now circulating around the globe, as fact, thus causing yet another blotch on Gambia’s once pristine character, and disdain for Yahya Jammeh from the Gambia’s highly educated Christian community and the Gambia’s animist majority. In complete disagreement with Yahya Jammeh, Muslims are not the majority in the Gambia, and to make that allegation, is to ignore the prevalence of our ancestral superstitious belief systems and practice of shamanism in each tribe, and by both Muslim and Christians. The practice of shamanism in Gambian society undercuts and disparages the concept of monotheism, the bedrock of both religions. But that is for another day. What seems so apparent in this declaration or lack thereof, is Yahya Jammeh’s perceived ability to circumvent the National Assembly and make laws, but it also says more about the redundancy of an institution relegated to a mere tool of Yahya Jammeh.
But for now, even if Yahya Jammeh had meant to turn Gambia into an Islamic state, he only projected an unforgivable cluelessness about the complexity this effort requires. The financial and social costs of turning the Gambia into an Islamic state are enormous and complicated. Even recognizing the absolute power Yahya Jammeh wields, it takes more than just verbal utterance, at an obscure town square, to make the Gambia complaint with the dogma and values of an Islamic state. But, now that the media misinformation has gone viral, Yahya Jammeh is stuck between a rock and a hard place; in a dilemma, unable to walk back or deny the state’s Islamization story. Be that as it may, nothing materially is going to change in Gambia. Turning Gambia into an Islamic state requires significant structural changes to the Gambia’s governing instruments; the legal system, education, other institutions, as well as making far-reaching cultural changes. Crucially, the task of turning a secular state into an Islamic one, will make the Gambia a theocracy, an oxymoron when juxtaposed on the Gambia’s Republican Constitution and jurisprudence. Importantly, an Islamic state, requires governing by Islamic law; Sharia Law, to be more precise; without which there is no Islamic state, but that is only a part of the burdens of declaring the Gambia an Islamic state. Gambians’ way of life, regardless of tribe, is incompatible with an Islamic state, and there is no indication Gambians want to be like North Sudan or Somalia, where the predominance of Islam means the loss of an African identity, assimilation, and the adoption of Islam’s governing legal system. But, prioritizing religion as opposed to economic needs, speaks to Yahya Jammeh’s miscalculation, or better still, deliberate attempt to evoke religion as a way to both contain and deter pubic expressions of disenchantment with his regime. It insults Gambians’ intelligence and questions Yahya Jammeh’s governing theory.
To further belabor the issue of Gambia Islamization, it is hoped that, at the very minimum, Yahya Jammeh understands that, first, Gambia’s governing instrument, the Constitution, must change before the country can have a legally binding Islamic state profile, and changing the Constitution first requires a referendum vote by two thirds majority of the Gambian people. But, even changing the Constitution by a referendum is only a part of the hurdles Yahya Jammeh must overcome to make his reality true to Gambians. Changing the Gambia into an Islamic state cannot be done by proclamation. The existing Constitution undermines that effort, unless Gambians are to pretend it no longer exists, and that Yahya Jammeh is, in fact, the state, to quote King Louis the XIV of France; “L’État, c’est moi.” This also requires a national referendum, approved by the majority of Gambians, and ratified by the National Assembly, before it becomes legally binding. In as much as Yahya Jammeh wields so much more power than the law allows, the Constitution cripples his ability to make life-changing proclamations that alter the nature of the state as an instrument of social and political organizing. It is an enormous undertaking to change the Gambia into an Islamic state, and the blow-back, mostly from secular Gambian Muslims, is fierce, relentless and an unwavering in its support of Gambia’s secular state. By its very nature, the secular state is a default security protocol, and altering this balance of power, will necessarily relegate non-Muslims to second class citizenship, in contravention of the Gambian Constitution. Whether Yahya Jammeh meant to proclaim Gambia an Islamic state or not, it is clear the damage is already done. And this only proves how reckless Yahya Jammeh has always been, in both his words and actions. The Islamic state of the Gambia; “Not in our Name,” is the trending Gambia refrain heard around the globe. Not in our Name.