MONTREAL — The tentacles of jihadist Islamist extremism are spreading across the African sub-Saharan continent and pose as great a risk there as anywhere else in the world, an African scholar said.

Speaking to a Canadian Institute for Jewish Research gathering recently, Shalem Coulibaly, a philosophy professor at the Université de Ouagadougou in the West African nation of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), expressed his concern about the extent to which forces of political Islamic radicalism are gaining steam and expanding through the Maghreb, the countries of Northwest Africa.

“You need to understand what happened in Algeria,” where Islamists have won a measurable political foothold, “to understand what is happening in West Africa,” said Coulibaly in his French-language discourse.

In its own way, he said, “Islamist expansionism” is not much different from the European imperialism of old, in terms of the route it has been taking.

Although he is a native African, Coulibaly speaks fluent Hebrew, a result of positions he held teaching at the Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities.

For him, West Africa has become a “laboratory” for Islamists to work on their “radical ideologies.”

“It is a silent progression of religious fanaticism,” he said.

This progression, he said, has extended to Mali, where French troops have intervened militarily against violent Islamist terrorists, and has included Timbuktu, Gao, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Tanzania and other areas.

Some of these nations border on Coulibaly’s native country of Burkina Faso, where, until it was threatened by Islamist encroachment, a modus vivendi had been developed for coexistence between the Christian and Muslim populations, which are roughly equal in number.

In his talk, Coulibaly also provided historical context for Islam’s presence in Africa, where more than 400 million mostly Sunni Muslims – one-quarter of the world’s Muslim population – live.

Often, he said, Islamists exploit existing discontent within native populations to gain a theological and political foothold.

Earlier, Coulibaly spoke at McGill University as part of a seminar series sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

Written by David Lazarus

Originally published on Tuesday, April 16 at The Canadian Jewish News