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The Case for Senegalese Exceptionalism? – Professor Hussein Solomon

April 3, 2018

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The Case for Senegalese Exceptionalism?

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 6 (2018), Number 6 (April 2018)

West African countries have been mired in conflict since achieving independence. Inter-state and intra-state wars have been the bane as has been the poor civil-military relations witnessed in the numerous coups and attempted coups in the region. Senegal, meanwhile has remained a stable albeit flawed democracy all this time. In recent years, the region has suffered the ravages of Islamist extremism in the form of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, Boko Haram, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Murabitoun, and countless other groupings as the various extremist organizations disintegrate and coalesce in new formations. Once again, Senegal has remained the exception with no militant Islamist grouping operating on its territory. This is all the more remarkable if one considers that 96.1 percent of Senegalese are Muslim. What accounts for this exceptionalism and what can neighbouring states learn from the Senegalese example?

To understand why Senegal has largely been inoculated from extremism, we need to understand that the overwhelming majority of its Muslims belong to four main Sufi brotherhoods which all subscribe to the notion that the country is a civil state (dawla madaniyah). A civil state implies that religious leaders respect that people are sovereign, that they elect politicians who enact legislation. In a civil state, the political leadership also recognizes that religious leaders have a legitimate role to play in the public sphere. Far from Western secular notions of the separation of Church and State, Senegal then creates the space for both to co-exist in the public sphere. This also implies that Salafist notions of capturing political power in order to make better Muslims through legislation has little traction in the country.

An important caveat needs emphasis here is that the Senegalese state creates the space for all religions equally and not only the majority one. Consider the following: the country recognizes seven public Islamic holidays annually and six for those who are Roman Catholics which only constitute 3.6 percent of the population. Indeed, Senegal goes further and actually subsidizes those Catholics who wish to visit Rome in the same manner that Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca. In this way, Senegal celebrates its religious diversity.

It is also important to note that Senegalese education ministry officials work with Muslim imams to ensure that a mutually acceptable curriculum is embarked upon which not only provide learners in Muslim schools with a religious education renown for its tolerance but also the requisite skills to function in the market place. The close interaction between state and Islamic authorities also achieved other social benefits when government officials and imams embarked on a joint programme against female genital mutilation.

The proximity between state and Islamic authorities however also constitutes a danger. Islamists often point to the co-option of the leaders of Sufi brotherhoods by the political leadership. These religious authorities then are also blamed for the failures of the political leadership. One way to avoid this is to ensure that whilst Muslim religious leaders interact with government they stay aloof from politics and refrain from endorsing specific candidates during elections.

Islamists are also adept at exploiting existing grievances in a society for their own ends. Two issues here are of central importance. Youth unemployment and the ongoing separatism movement in southern Senegal. 60 percent of the population is below 25 years of age and they suffer high unemployment rates. Over the years Senegal’s dependence on mining, fishing, agriculture and more recently tourism and construction has not provided the necessary lift to the economy to absorb the millions of unemployed youth. The government, together with its international partners, needs to prioritize industrialization with a view to reducing unemployment and poverty in the country. In the south, meanwhile, The Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance has led an armed insurgency since the 1980s. Various peace initiatives have failed and whilst there is a de facto ceasefire holding, urgent steps need to be taken to ensure that the conflict does not flare up again.

In conclusion, if Senegal can ensure cooperation with religious authorities without co-option; if it can fast track economic development to absorb restless unemployed youth; and if it can bring to a peaceful conclusion the Casamance separatist insurgency, it will retain its exceptionalism in West Africa.

One Comment
  1. Quite remarkable history in Senegal. Deserves further study, and perhaps application of some of the lessons, by other African Muslim entities.

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