Robert Launay, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

The civil war in Côte d’Ivoire was definitely not a war of religion, pitting the Muslim north against the Christian south. On the other hand, it would be equally misleading to assert that religion was never an issue. The rhetoric of ressentiment deployed by partisans of Laurent Gbagbo has been rife with Islamophobia [1]. For example, one extreme (but hardly isolated) comment posted on a political forum on, an Ivoirian website hosted in the U.S., read: “The imans [sic] are ready to wage ‘gihat’ [“jihad,” sic], their Jula war. And to think that there are still people who call Ivoirians xenophobes!” Such sentiments sometimes erupted into violence targeting mosques and Muslims.

It is hardly incidental that anti-Muslim rhetoric categorizes Islam as a “Jula” religion. The emergence of Islam as an “ethnic” religion was indissociably linked to the nation’s colonial and postcolonial economic history. Before colonial rule, Islam had largely been limited to members of the Mande-speaking trading diaspora in the northern savanna. Even in predominantly Mande-speaking areas, it was the religion of a minority. The lively trade between the savanna and the forest zone to the south was conducted along a jealously guarded frontier. Colonial rule opened up the south to northern traders and other migrants. The development of a plantation economy centered on cocoa and coffee created an economic gulf between the northern and southern halves of Côte d’Ivoire and between the colony and its neighbors to the north: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. This newfound wealth generated the rapid growth of towns in the south which, along with plantations, became magnets for migration from the north, both inside and outside Côte d’Ivoire. Members of the Mande-speaking Muslim trading diaspora were quick to exploit the potential of the expanding informal sector of the new towns in the south. However, other northern immigrants could enter this network by converting to Islam and, if necessary, by adopting Mande as a lingua franca [2].

These “Jula”—Mande-speaking Muslims from northern Côte d’Ivoire and from neighboring colonies—constituted a substantial proportion of the population of southern Côte d’Ivoire, especially in towns. When, after World War II, Félix Houphouët-Boigny began to campaign against colonial rule, many Jula, whether from inside or outside the colony, were enthusiastic supporters. When Côte d’Ivoire quickly became a one-party state after independence, the difference between citizens and foreigners made no difference for elections. Even so, in the south of the country, “Jula” remained an ambiguous category, lumping together nationals and foreigners, all with acknowledged roots outside the region. Islam was the most visible sign of this ambiguous identity.

This ambiguity became politically salient with the rise of electoral politics, especially after the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993. Houphouët’s successor, Henri Konan Bédié, cynically promulgated an ideology of ivoirité—“Ivoirianness”—amending the constitution to exclude one of his main political rivals, Alassane Ouattara, on the grounds that his father had been born in Burkina Faso [3, p. 42]. In other words, Ouattara, ethnically Jula and (nominally) Muslim, was branded a “foreigner.” All of a sudden, a nativist rhetoric which assimilated Islam and “foreignness” was accorded political respectability and was conveniently adopted by Konan Bédié’s successors, Robert Guéï and especially Laurent Gbagbo.

Mosque of Kong. Photo by Ivoire8, CC-SA.

The stakes were huge. If Muslims were essentially “foreign”, they could be excluded, not only from elected office, but also from voting. In the absence of any effective formal mechanisms of naturalization, who qualified as a citizen? Anyone born in Côte d’Ivoire? Did one, or perhaps both, of one’s parents need to be “native” Ivoirian? In the absence of a reliable civil registry, how could one tell? For this very reason, partisans of Gbagbo have been consistently haunted by the prospect of voter fraud, partisans of Ouattara by voter suppression. These questions were not definitively settled in the past election by any means, although the very balance of electoral power in Côte d’Ivoire depends on how they are resolved. If the children and grandchildren of (largely Muslim) immigrants are accorded the vote, Muslims will constitute an electoral majority in Côte d’Ivoire; if they are excluded, “natives” will have the upper hand. For this very reason, in the absence of any theological considerations, Islam and Islamophobia still promise to play an important role in Ivoirian political discourse for some time to come.


[1] McGovern, Mike. 2011. Making War in Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Launay, Robert and Marie Miran. 2000. “Beyond Mande Mory: Islam and Ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire.” Paideuma 46: 63-84.

[3] Hellweg, Joseph, 2011. Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.