When the world’s newest Islamic republic honors the Jewish state

Paul Hirschson, Israel’s ambassador to Gambia, dissects the significance of a tiny West African nation’s name change

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israel's ambassador to Gambia Paul Hirschson inspects an honor guard in Gambia's capital Banjul, January 12, 2016. (Courtesy Israel Embassy, Dakar)
Israel's ambassador to Gambia Paul Hirschson inspects an honor guard in Gambia's capital Banjul, January 12, 2016. (Courtesy Israel Embassy, Dakar)

A month after Gambia declared itself an “Islamic Republic,” its longtime ruler this week warmly hosted the ambassador of the world’s only Jewish state.

Israel’s Ambassador Paul Hirschson on Tuesday inspected a presidential honor guard in the capital Banjul before he handed his letters of credentials to Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy. The next day, he sat down for an hour-long chat with President Yahya Jammeh, who has been leading this tiny West African nation since taking power in a 1994 coup.

Gambia made headlines in early December when Jammeh officially changed his country’s name to the “Islamic Republic of the Gambia” in what he explained was a bid to better reflect the country’s religious identity. More than 95 percent of Gambia’s 1.9 million citizens are Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Banjul sympathizes with the Palestinians, but it has maintained cordial relations with Jerusalem over the years.

“They were warmly welcoming of my presence,” Hirschson said Thursday after concluding a three-day visit to Gambia, the smallest state on continental Africa. (Hirschson is based in Dakar, Senegal, and has ambassadorial responsibility for several countries in West Africa.) “They have good relations with the Palestinians and with the entire Arab and Muslim world, but they’re not shy to put a headline in the newspaper saying that the new Israeli ambassador was here and presented his credentials to the president.”

Hirschson, who was born in South Africa, was interviewed twice by local television stations during this week’s visit, and his photo appeared in several newspapers, including one front page.

Ambassador Hirschson's meeting with President Jammeh on the front page of Gambia's Daily Observer (courtesy Israel Embassy Dakar)
Ambassador Hirschson’s meeting with President Jammeh on the front page of Gambia’s Daily Observer (Courtesy Israel Embassy, Dakar)

“They’re absolutely not shy about their ties with Israel,” he told The Times of Israel from Dakar. “The president told me, ‘If we didn’t want you here, you would not be presenting your letters of credentials.’ That’s a verbatim quote. He is fully aware that this is a public decision that he took.”

The people Hirschson met on the streets of Gambia all knew he represented Israel and were all friendly and forthcoming, the ambassador added.

In his conversation with the Gambian president — who is addressed as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa — Hirschson discussed, among other things, the current turmoil shaking the Middle East and large parts of Africa.

“He definitely told me that there is a hell of a lot of instability in our region and that we [Israel] should do our part to try to calm things down,” Hirschson said. “This reflects a genuine concern not only in Gambia but across the region that there is some sort of instability overload, reaching from here [West Africa] to Iran, with a few islands of stability, including Israel. People are on edge about this.”

The leader of the world’s newest Islamic state candidly told the Israeli envoy that while Gambia and Israel are friends, Banjul does not always agree with all of Jerusalem’s policies. According to Hirschson, Jammeh holds both Israelis and Palestinians responsible for the deadlock in the peace process. “He also has criticism about the Palestinians and the Arab world, and he voices that as well,” the Israeli envoy said. “He said he is friends with both and that he’s neutral in the conflict. By that, I think he meant he supports both sides.”

What’s in a name?

In a world feeling acutely threatened by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and with the Islamic Republic of Iran widely recognized as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, why did President Jammeh choose this moment to add “Islamic” to his country’s name?

To hear the president, the decision was straightforward. “Recently, I pronounced the Gambia as an Islamic State and Republic on the basis that the majority of Gambians are Muslims and the need to uphold the country’s Islamic identity and faith in an environment where the rights of all citizens would be safeguarded and respected,” he explained during his annual New Year’s address.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh (CC BY-SA 3.0 Zantastik)
Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh (CC BY-SA 3.0 Zantastik)

Jammeh, who calls himself the “Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of the Gambia,” further called on Muslims and Christians to “work in harmony for the common good of the country regardless of our ethno-linguistic differences” and to “eradicate tribalism” because it is shunned by Allah. “Let us live as one strong and united family,” he said, “and be each other’s keeper; be devout Muslims and patriotic citizens as well.”

Gambia’s change of name may be more than mere semantics, however. On January 4, the president decreed that women who work for the government — the country’s single largest employer — must cover their hair during work hours, though they were allowed to go bareheaded after they concludes their shifts. By Thursday, Jammeh had reportedly rescinded the executive order.

Paul Hirschson (Facebook)
Paul Hirschson (Facebook)

There is also talk of changing the country’s flag to reflect its new identity. Naturally, Gambia’s tiny Christian minority “is beginning to get worried,” Sidi Sanneh, a former Gambian diplomat and prominent dissident, told the Economist newspaper last week.

Flag of The Gambia
Flag of the Gambia

But Hirschson, who is also Israel’s ambassador to Senegal, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, is convinced the name change does not indicate a desire to become a more deeply religious or radical regime.

“When we hear this term — Islamic state — it conjures all kinds of images of Iran and ISIS,” he said. That was not the impression Hirschson got during his three-day visit. “This is no fundamentalist society by any means. They are religious and conservative, but they are also open and friendly and welcoming. Alcohol is being sold freely and tourists and women in bikinis walk around. There’s music in the streets and everybody is perfectly laid back.”

Citing the president, Hirschson said the name change mainly served to distance the state from its colonial past — in 2013 Jammeh left the Commonwealth for the same reason — and to embrace the religious identity of a large majority of its citizens.

Posted by Paul Hirschson on Wednesday, January 13, 2016

But there are likely other reasons for Jammeh’s move as well, including some having to do with his country’s dire poverty: The recent Ebola outbreak drove tourists away. And due to the state’s poor human rights record, financial assistance from European states has halted. Officially declaring the republic an “Islamic state” may helps endear Gambia to wealthy Arab states, especially in the Gulf region.

Also, the country is currently bidding to host the 2018 summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a major event that could boost its economy tremendously. Gambia’s new moniker certainly won’t hurt in that effort.

Still, Hirschson cautioned against dismissing Gambia’s re-branding as economic opportunism.

“You press a button and you never know how it’s going to play out,” the Israeli diplomat said, hinting that calling yourself an “Islamic state” could yet prove a slippery slope with unforeseen consequences, he posited. “You’re not really the master of your future. These things sometimes take on a life of their own.”

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