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ISITA Welcomes New Director

Zekeria Ahmed Salem Denna-crop

Zekeria Ahmed Salem, political science and director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa. Photo by Roger Anderson

Northwestern University has appointed political scientist Zekeria Ahmed Salem, political science, as director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA).

”I am deeply humbled and honored to come to Northwestern University and to be appointed as ISITA’s Director,” says Ahmed Salem, who arrived October 5. “Northwestern pioneered the field of African Studies in the United States, and in a sense, ISITA could not have been created elsewhere. The Institute has been a driving force behind the emergence over the past two decades of the interdisciplinary study of Islam in Africa as a vibrant area of research in the social sciences.”

Ahmed Salem specializes in Islam and Muslim politics in Africa in comparative perspective. His research engages critical debates about religion and politics, especially the interconnections between the state and religious authority, identity politics, Islamic knowledge, and political power in contemporary African societies. Based on long-term fieldwork in the northwestern African nation of Mauritania, his published work sheds light on the religious formation of the postcolonial state as well as on the intersection of Islam, ethnicity, race, and social hierarchy.

Ahmed Salem’s monograph, Prêcher dans le Désert: Islam, Politique et Changement Social en Mauritanie (published by Karthala in 2013, with an English translation forthcoming as Preaching in the Desert: Islam, Politics and Social Change in Mauritania), examines major postcolonial transformations that shaped a new public sphere and changed key aspects of the social lives of Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Chronicling the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence in the 1960s to the present, the book explores how postcolonial authorities in this self-proclaimed Islamic polity failed in their attempt to use Islam as a uniting force in a multi-ethnic and highly hierarchical society. Based on more than 20 years of fieldwork, including participant observation, interviews with key actors, research in postcolonial archives, close readings of Islamic doctrinal texts and fatwas, and the collection of life histories, Ahmed Salem’s research reveals how Mauritanian Muslims of all social strata try actively to shape their political and religious lives through engagement with the bodies of religious knowledge available to them. Of particular note is the book’s focus on the role of imams of slave descent and anti-slavery activists from the Arabic speaking Hârâtîn group (people from slave backgrounds) in developing, promoting, or critiquing social norms that affect social hierarchies and the legacy of slavery in the country. Moving beyond a narrow conception of the political, the book explores the intersections of religion and religious thought with social change.

“Zekeria Ahmed Salem’s scholarship is important well beyond the Mauritanian case study,” says Will Reno, political science and director of the Program of African Studies. “Through the Mauritanian example, Ahmed Salem’s work elucidates a series of core questions in the social sciences such as how religious beliefs and political practice are dynamically entwined with political authority, and how the divisions between religion and politics are socially and historically constructed. His findings often defy conventional assumptions about boundaries between state and private spheres.”

In other publications, Ahmed Salem has examined Islamic preachers in urban settings, elections in Senegal and Mauritania, and lawyers and politics. A four-year collaborative research project he directed on Mauritania’s position as a “frontier state” resulted in an edited volume titled Les trajectoires d’un Etat-frontière: espaces, évolution politique et transformations sociales en Mauritanie (CODESRIA, 2004). Ahmed Salem has contributed chapters to numerous edited volumes and published articles in the Journal of North African Studies, Politique Africaine, Cahiers d’études africaines, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Nomadic Peoples, Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, and L’Ouest Saharien.

Current projects include completion of a Historical Dictionary of Mauritania with co-author Antonio Pazzanita (under contract with Rowan and Littlefield) and a major new research project on the impact of African Islamic scholars at home and abroad. Article-length works in progress focus on new forms of Sufism, public debates over blasphemy, and the role of Muslim public intellectuals in shaping the public sphere in African Muslim societies.

Ahmed Salem holds an MA in philosophy and anthropology from University of Nouakchott and a M.Phil. (Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies) and a PhD, both in political science, from Sciences-Po Lyon. He has taught political science and African studies for nearly two decades at the University of Nouakchott, becoming a Full Professor (Professeur Habilité) in 2011. He has held numerous visiting positions in Europe and the USA, including as Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Florida from 2010-11. His research has been funded by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the Fulbright Program, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), L’Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR, France), Sciences-Po Paris, the Jutta Vogel Foundation, and a number of government agencies in Mauritania and Europe.

Ahmed Salem assumes directorship of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, succeeding Robert Launay, anthropology, who served as interim director from 2016-17. Founded in 2000 by the late John O. Hunwick (professor emeritus of history and religion) and R. Seán O’Fahey of the University of Bergen, ISITA is the oldest research center in the United States devoted entirely to the study of Islam in Africa.  ISITA sponsors collaborative interdisciplinary scholarship on the Islamic tradition of learning in Africa and promotes broader awareness of the role of Islam in African societies, past and present. Its publications, conferences, visiting fellowships, training workshops, and research initiatives have been funded by the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New

“In collaboration with all of ISITA’s stakeholders, I look forward to building on the Institute’s accomplishments and its impressive international network to continue and expand the tremendous work started by John Hunwick and his successors, notably Muhammad Sani Umar and the Institute’s staff,” says Ahmed Salem. “It is of foremost importance that ISITA remain a leader in fostering research on the intellectual and cultural production of Muslims in Africa, past and present. It is also certainly vital to think more expansively about ISITA’s scope of inquiry in order to open up new avenues in terms of research, collaboration, resource mobilization, curriculum development, and outreach.

“This is an exciting time for studying religion and society. ISITA and Northwestern are very well positioned to be leaders in these discussions, especially considering that a number of on-campus initiatives are conducting cutting-edge research on global religion, society and politics. This is the right time to open a new chapter of ISITA’s history and to engage in conversations on campus and beyond on Islam and Muslim societies in genuinely comparative perspective.”

By Rebecca Shereikis