Africa, Headlines

CULTURE-NIGER: Government to Ban Islamic Groups Opposed to Fashion Festival

Saidou Arji and Noel Tadegnon

NIAMEY, Nov 15 2000 (IPS) - The government of Niger has banned Islamic groups which participated in violent demonstrations against the country’s Second International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA).

Security was tight at FIMA, which took place Nov. 9 through 12 along the banks of the Niger River at La Pilule, some 15 kilometres from the capital Niamey.

Before its official opening, leaders from several Islamic organisations held anti-FIMA meetings in mosques and delivered sermons which blasted it as a threat to Islam’s social and cultural values.

On Nov. 8, some Muslim activists marched on the National Assembly to voice their opposition to FIMA.

Security forces intervened and dispersed the crowd with tear gas. During the melee, some activists ransacked betting office kiosks, bars, and anything else they considered to be “in the service of the devil”. In some Niamey neighbourhoods, anti-FIMA militants attacked prostitutes and girls in miniskirts.

Similar events occurred in Maradi, Niger’s economic capital, located 650 kilometres from Niamey. There, in addition to betting office kiosks, the demonstrators also destroyed brothels, hotels, and property belonging to the International Missionary Society (SIM).

According to government figures, the demonstrators burned two churches, seven bars, and 26 betting kiosks. Sixty-three people were arrested. Islamic militants have stated that hundreds of their people were rounded up by security forces.

Religious leaders explained their opposition to the festival by saying that the event was contrary to the tenets of Islam because women would be publicly appearing in various states of undress. This, they state, is indecent, and undermines the foundations of Islamic society, where corporal modesty is essential.

“We know that at FIMA, all kinds of people who engage in practices contrary to our religion get together. The most notable of these is homosexuality, which is condemned by God and the Prophet Mohammed,” declared Malam Yahaya Mohamed, the chairperson of the group ADINI ISLAM.

Cheik Abdoulahi, chairman of the Association for the Influence of Islamic Culture (ARCI), explained that the militants wanted to stop FIMA in order to protect Niger from being cursed by God.

“I am convinced that people who participate in FIMA want to give our youths satanic habits. This will do harm to our Islamic culture,” he said.

Other, more moderate Islamic groups, however, called for tolerance and calm.

Cheik Elhadj Oumarou Ismael, the president of the Islamic Association of Niger (AIN), noted that the teachings of Islam forbid attacks on other people’s property.

Among the seven banned Islamic organisations are ADINI ISLAM, ARCI, and the Association of Muslim Students of the University of Niamey (AEMUN).

During a press conference last week, the Minister of the Interior and Regional Planning, Mahaman Manzo, said that an official inquiry had been opened to identify those responsible for the vandalism.

“Any person implicated in these crimes will be prosecuted, since we live in a republic and the state has an obligation to protect life and property. The government will not back down under any circumstances from punishing these vandals,” the minister warned.

According to some observers, the Islamic opposition to FIMA also had financial roots. There was some resentment regarding how the profits generated by the show would be spent. ARCI’s Cheik Abdoulahi insisted that all of FIMA’s profits would be the property of Sydnaly Sydhamed Alphadi, the festival’s impresario.

“You can’t allow someone’s pet project to be more important than the survival of an entire community, a project which also undermines the moral fibre of Muslim society,” he said.

For Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries where 63 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, FIMA has provided an occasion to raise funds for the war against poverty. Thanks to this international African fashion festival, Niger has become the continent’s crossroads of style.

This ambitious festival, which first took place in 1999, was supported by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP). Receipts from a benefit concert organised Nov. 9 for the gala opening were donated to Niger’s National Programme for the War on Poverty.

The festival’s theme this year was ‘Culture, Peace, and the War Against Poverty’. Several thousand participants, including many from international decision-making, financial and artistic circles, attended the event. There were also scores of fashion models from all corners of the globe.

Some 40 fashion designers, too, were in attendance, including Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gauthier of France, the Brazilian Carlos Miele, Bibi Russel of Bangladesh, Oumou Sy of Senegal.

Rissa Agbola, Minister of Tourism and Crafts, was proud of the way the event showcased the country. “It’s a way to improve our country’s image, and to show that, in addition to our beautiful landscapes, we also have the capacity to organise world-class events.”

Fashion designer and festival promoter Sydnaly Sydhamed Alphadi noted that FIMA initially helped create 1,000 temporary jobs. He says that more long-term jobs will be available as soon as FIMA becomes a permanent fixture in Niger.

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