Quranic schools are a prevalent cultural tradition across most Sahelian countries where Islam is the dominant religion. According to research, two-thirds of 6-18 year olds, mainly Muslim males, are likely to leave home to attend one of these mostly independently run institutions. But with little government or community oversight, there are concerns that students are at risk amid rising radicalisation in the region.
The Sahel has seen a rise in local Islamist extremist groups in recent years, such as Islamist militant groups Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in Mali, with networks in neighboring countries like Burkina Faso and Niger. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has led its insurgency in Nigeria since 2009, branching out into the Lake Chad Basin. These developments have raised a red flag about local Quranic schools facilitating jihadi recruitment. There is no clear evidence of a direct link with extremist groups, but reports indicate students can be vulnerable, and that schools can be a channel to militancy.
Some families send their children to Quranic schools because they want them to get a religious education. Yet others enroll their offspring because they lack the resources to raise them. Such students are taken under the wing of marabouts, or religious teachers. With families having little to no contact with children away at school, marabouts at times play the role of guardians for disadvantaged students. Quranic schools are mostly founded and financed by the marabouts themselves.
These teachers tend towards Salafi Islam, especially those who studied abroad in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Historically, marabouts travelled to those countries for Islamic studies, which accorded them a certain prestige and status in society. There are some Quranic schools in the region with funding from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but these tend to be more formal institutions established by local governments. Traditional Quranic schools are founded by a marabout.
These schools focus only on Quranic studies, meaning that students, or talibes, do not receive a formal education that provides them with skills for future employment. This adds to the social, economic, and security challenges associated with high levels of youth unemployment across places like Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.
Marabouts are mostly well-respected community members. However there are reports that some abuse their status for economic gain. Sahelian communities are becoming increasingly aware of the risk that teachers could facilitate recruitment for extremist groups in exchange for money. An employee of the Burkina Faso-based IQRA, an association working on Talibés-related issues in the Sahel, said there was concern about this issue. According to a 2014 study by Cercle D'Etude, de Recherches et de Formation Islamique (CERFI), marabouts manage, operate, and control finances with little external oversights for 6,804 out of the 7,502 Quranic schools in Burkina Faso, a country with an estimated 140,000 Talibés.
There is some evidence that conditions within some of schools may provide opportunities for extremist recruiters, via the marabouts. In May 2016, for instance, former Boko Haram members detained in Niger admitted in interviews to joining the group because their marabouts encouraged them. In Mali, local sources in the Mopti region said in April that an unknown number of youth joined the MLF because of loyalty to their master and charismatic preacher Amadou Koufa, the MLF's leader. The MLF is influential in the Mopti region. In interviews with local youth in the region, they raised concerns about students being exploited by their marabouts.
But Quranic schools are a tradition likely to continue in the Sahel. CERFI's study found that since 2000, the number of Quranic schools in Burkina Faso increased by 31.2%. Because there are limited options for education, communities should collaborate with local authorities to encourage change in the marabouts' teaching curricula, and to ensure some oversight of these institutions.
To add to this, in many cases, students report living in poor conditions and suffering physical abuse. In interviews conducted in April in central Mali, multiple local sources highlighted these problems. According to their testimonies, some marabouts have sent students out to beg on the streets, where they are exposed to crime, trafficking, drugs, diseases, child labor, and violence.
Such conditions hardly protect talibes from extremist recruiters. As one 17-year-old student from Burkina Faso told IQRA, "No one approached me yet, but if that opportunity arises, I don't know, why not! I don't have anything going on in my life right now anyways."