Charles Taylor Converting to Islam: The Potential for West African Change
Liberian President Charles Taylor is allegedly considering converting to Islam, according to an August 13 Agence France Presse (AFP) report quoting the Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz. The unprecedented move could have significant implications for Liberia's current domestic turmoil as well as West African politics in general.
The Okaz story quoted informed sources as saying Taylor was helped in his decision by Libya's Moamer Kadhafi during a recent meeting in Sirte, Libya. Although no date has been announced for the conversion, Taylor will reportedly enter into Islam during an upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia and the holy city of Mecca.
Friday's Okaz report comes in the midst of a crisis situation in Liberia. Armed rebels near Liberia's border with Guinea have started a new insurrection after some three years of relative peace when an internationally brokered peace deal ended years of civil war and brought Charles Taylor to power in elections in 1996. International attention became focused on the recent conflict when rebels kidnapped nine international aid workers on August 13. Last week, Taylor declared a state of emergency in upper Lofa county, to the northwest of Monrovia. Heavy fighting between government troops and rebel forces has raged for the past few days, according to Liberia's online Star Radio.
Taylor has blamed insurgents from Guinea for the recent unrest, but Liberia's Information Minister, Joe Mulbah, thinks the rebels are possibly remnants of the disbanded United Liberation Movement, according to an August 14 AFP report. Mulbah reportedly said the rebels were ethnic Mandingos and followers of the former Liberian warlord Alhaji Kromah, who is currently residing in the United States.
While the recent outbreak in fighting is a serious threat to Liberia's stability, Taylor's expected conversion to Islam could be a source of reconciliation for the current insurgency. While Liberia is only 20 percent Muslim, the Mandingo people, who are allegedly behind the insurrection, have been Muslim for centuries. Alhaji Kromah is himself presumably a Muslim.
Taylor's conversion to Islam could also positively affect politics in neighboring countries such as Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone's Muslim president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, is currently mired in delicate peace negotiations with the non-Muslim Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF began its insurrection in 1989 with help from a rebel movement gathering momentum in Liberia at the same time. The leader of the Liberian rebel movement was Charles Taylor, and there have been widespread accusations that Liberia has in the past aided the rebels in Sierra Leone. A more substantive alliance between Kabbah and Taylor could prove beneficial to both countries by helping to isolate the respective rebel movements in each country. Liberia's relationships with her other neighbors, such as Guinea, can only stand to improve with Taylor's conversion. Guinea is approximately 90 percent Muslim, while the Ivory Coast is almost 60 percent Muslim.
While political unity on the basis of Islam has been an elusive concept in this century, Muslims and Muslim leaders in West Africa have traditionally shied away from internal religious divisions. And if Taylor's friendship with Kadhafi, a leader known for his emphasis on African and Muslim unity, is any indication of Taylor's interpretation of Islam, it is probable he will use Islam as a new force for peace and stability in West Africa.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com