Radicalization in Senegal?

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS), headquartered in South Africa, has released three installments of its “ECOWAS Peace and Security Report” – ECOWAS being the acronym, as many readers know, for the Economic Community of West African States. As the ISS’ overview of the project says, the report aims to provide ECOWAS policymakers with analyses of important issues. The first installment, “Mali: Making Peace while Preparing for War” (October 2012) is available here (.pdf). The second installment, “The Political Economy of Conflicts in Northern Mali” (April 2013) is here (.pdf). The third installment, “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” came out recently and is available in French here (.pdf). An English-language abstract is online.

The report examines whether Senegal could become a space for jihadist activity amid the broader Sahelian crisis. Here are a few (in my view) key sentences:

  • p. 2, “The minority discourse favorable to jihadism is present in many spheres of Senegalese society, notably in urban peripheries, among the youngest populations.”
  • p. 5, “Discourse favorable to jihadist ideology rests on three platforms – ‘pan-Islamic’ solidarity, anti-Sufism, and a fundamentally anti-Western attitude – even though a number of socio-economic factors seem to underpin these functional alibis.”
  •  p. 7, “The duality of the Senegalese educational system in its current form could generate in the next decades – if it is not already the case – major frustrations that could be tapped into by Islamist movements and which could result in a deep social fracture…” The author describes this “duality” in greater detail on p. 5, in a section on French-language and Arabic-language schools.

IRIN has an article based on the report.

The report is well-researched. But I have mixed feelings about broader conversation surrounding the question it treats. On the one hand, we see incidents of jihadist violence in Mauritania, Mali, and recently Niger. So we know it’s a dangerous neighborhood. And there are reasons why Senegal might be an attractive target for jihadists: the presence of many NGOs and foreign assets in Dakar, the media spectacle that a bombing there might generate, grievances stemming the participation of Senegal in the stabilization mission in Mali, etc. The wide circulation of images depicting Senegal as the “land of hospitality” or a country of peace-loving Sufis do not confer immunity from attacks. So I do not think it is wise to dismiss outright the threat of violence or radicalization in Senegal.

On the other hand, I am wary, and weary, of alarmism. Some voices are keen now to depict all of West Africa – even all of Africa – as a site of Muslim extremism, interreligious conflict, and instability. The report’s recommendations (listed on p. 7) are sensible – developing a strategy for vigilance regarding religious extremism, holding a national dialogue on the education system, etc. – but other voices will likely push for greater militarization in the face of perceived and actual threats. If one can discuss the issue of radicalization in Senegal soberly, I am all for evaluating the level of such radicalization and seeking to generate reasonable counter-measures, as the report does. But I worry about the broader conversation running off the rails.

On a final note, I think one needs to be careful in making casual linkages between poverty and extremism. I am not well-versed in quantitative studies of jihadist recruitment, but my impression has long been that it is not typically the poorest of the poor who join jihadist outfits. Indeed, jihadist recruits often seem to be surprisingly middle-class, partially-educated, etc. Readers should correct me if this impression is mistaken. But I hope that discussions of potential radicalization in Senegal will take into account that profiles of jihadi recruits need to include more elements than poverty, youth, urbanity, and frustration.

Review: Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal

Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal. Edited by Mamadou Diouf. Columbia University Press, 2013. 296 pages. $29.50.

I received this volume to review in my capacity as a blogger, and so this review will be less formal than a review you might read in an academic journal. It will also be less comprehensive; in my view, the capacity to link to the table of contents obviates the need to describe every chapter. For the sake of disclosure, I will say that I have met at least five of the contributors.

The volume’s ten chapters treat intersections of Sufism and politics in Senegal through the lenses of history, sociology, political science, philosophy, and other disciplines. Together, these contributions provide important background for understanding contemporary Senegal. The outgrowth of a 2008 conference at Columbia University, the book does not include material on religious and political trends under President Macky Sall (elected 2012). But the colonial period and the postcolonial period from 1960-2008 receive considerable attention. The volume is well organized, moving from several crucial framing chapters (Diouf’s introduction and Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s “A Secular Age and the World of Islam”) into case-based approaches, before concluding with comparative chapters by Alfred Stepan and Leonardo Villalon. The reader who is new to Senegal will find the book accessible, while specialists will encounter rich historical and ethnographic material.

One central aim of the book is to examine what Diouf calls Senegal’s “social contract,” which “has brought religious [especially Sufi] and political authorities together since colonial times” (2). This investigation involves a consideration of “Senegalese exceptionalism” – Senegal’s political stability, and its status as the only West African nation never to have experienced a military coup. Senegal’s success is sometimes attributed to the strong presence of Sufi orders there, and to relationships of partnership and negotiation between Sufi leaders and politicians.

As the word “tolerance” in the title reminds us, some media and policy commentators (and some Sufis) equate Sufism with tolerance. I often see analyses depicting a binary opposition between “tolerant Sufism” and “rigid fundamentalism.” This binary opposition, which I consider deeply flawed, creates pressures and expectations for Sufis to combat Salafism and Islamism. Some policymakers, Western, African, and others, look to (and seek to promote) Sufism as a counterbalance to these other Muslim tendencies. In the present political context, understanding Sufism in Senegal takes on great urgency; the book helps move readers beyond unhelpful binary oppositions while still highlighting distinctive features of the Senegalese case.

Some chapters in the volume, importantly, question or destabilize the image of “tolerant Sufism” and its role in facilitating “Senegalese exceptionalism.” Villalon, in the final chapter, accords a major role to “the specific social structures and organizational forms developed by Senegalese Sufism” in generating Senegal’s political stability (240). But he also advances three major caveats to the idea of Senegalese exceptionalism. First, Sufism is “multivocal” and may not always manifest “tolerance.” Second, given forms of one-party rule in independent Senegal through 2000, “a consideration of the relationship between religion and ‘democracy’ in the Senegalese case can really only be explored beginning in the 1990s – because that is the point when Senegal in fact launched itself on a process of substantative procedural democratization” (242). Finally, Villalon argues that Senegal is less exceptional than often thought, especially in comparison to Mali and Niger; since the 1990s, democratization in all three countries has created new opportunities for religious actors to participate in public life.

Joseph Hill’s contribution also complicates the image of “Sufi tolerance.” Contestation, even violence, may occur within a Sufi community. Drawing on ethnographic research among followers of the Tijaniyya affiliated with Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), Hill examines how these Sufis relate to each other and to representatives of the state. Hill finds in these interactions a “pragmatic pluralism not grounded in a supposedly neutral ‘liberal’ approach to tolerance but in the negotiated and even symbiotic existence of multiple, mutually irreducible claims to truth and authority and multiple understandings of political and moral community” (116). Policymakers and commentators keen to oppose Sufism to other forms of Islam would be wise to ask themselves whether they really understand Sufis.

Why is it important to question and complicate the image of “tolerant Sufism”? In part to ensure analytical rigor, but also to humanize Sufis themselves. Tolerance is a virtue. But two-dimensional images of traditions and communities, even if those images emphasize desirable traits, ultimately do those traditions and communities a disservice. In a world where Sufis find that some very powerful people have big plans for them, they may be thankful for this volume, which goes beyond the stereotypes and stock images.

Guest Post: Interview with Amb. Mouhamadou Doudou Lo

[This guest post comes from Joseph Hammond, a freelance journalist. You can read more of his reporting on the 12th Islamic Summit here. Joseph in on Twitter here. – Alex]

Senegal’s Ambassador Mouhamadou Doudou Lo is one of Senegal’s high profile diplomats. His career has seen postings in a number of Arab capitals and also a stint as Senegal’s ambassador to Brazil. More recently Lo has served as Senegal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Lo has subsequently become a key figure in Senegal’s relationship with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Senegal has traditionally played a leadership role in the OIC. Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations and is based in Jeddah. The ambassador spoke with Joseph Hammond on the sidelines of the of the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo.

Following bilateral meetings on the sidelines Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal decided to re-establish relations with Iran. Can you tell us why Senegal chose this as the moment to resume relations with Iran?

We reevaluated the situation with regard to Iran [at the Islamic Summit], the Islamic Republic of Iran is after all a fellow OIC member country and we now realize that it is the time for us to re-establish our relationship[with Iran] because we are moving in the same direction. Thus, our relationship has been re-established in a way that respects our sovereignty and our rights within the framework of the Muslim world and the workings of the OIC.

….As I understand it in 2011 Senegal broke relations with Iran over Iranian arm shipments to rebels in Senegal. Have the issues related to severing of ties with Iran been resolved?

“We don’t want to look backward and on this issue… [from our perspective] it has been resolved. Now we are looking forward and hoping to develop a relationship within the framework of friendship, a forward looking relationship with improved cooperation.

Senegal has been an active member in the OIC since the beginning of the organization. While this was the first time  the Islamic Summit was hosted in Cairo, Senegal has twice hosted the Islamic Summit including the last Islamic Summit held in 2008 in Dakar. What were some of Senegal’s achievements as president of the OIC?

Until the Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal had the extraordinary opportunity to hold the presidency of the OIC for an extraordinary 5 years. This is due to the fact that the Islamic Summit was twice postponed before the meeting in Cairo. The last five years during which Senegal has been President of the OIC, have been productive ones. During this period the OIC has seen a number of new achievements including a new logo and the renaming of the OIC from the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These are some of the many achievements toward the modernization of the OIC as an organization that Senegal has been a part of. We have also helped in progress toward other goals as well. In particular in the cultural sector, where we held a leadership role in the OIC Standing Committee for Information and Cultural Affairs (COMIAC).

Cultural issues were a big part of the past Islamic Summit. Since the last Islamic Summit, the Muslim world has seen the desecration of a number of historic sites weather in Libya or in Mali. Indeed, Muhammad VI, the King of Morocco touched on attacks on Mali’s “cultural heritage” during his speech to the Islamic Summit. How is the OIC seeking to address this issue?

Historic sites in the Muslim world need to be protected whether in Africa or elsewhere. The resolution on Mali passed at the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo condemned the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu. The OIC must take steps to ensure the situation we have seen in Mali will not be repeated. We must preserve the cultural and historic heritage of [the] world’s Islamic monuments. These are sites important to [the] world’s history and heritage as well.

Writings Elsewhere on Mali and Senegal

I’m going to prolong my break from blogging until March 1, but in the meantime I’ve written a few pieces on Mali and Senegal that may interest readers:

  • Al Jazeera Center for Studies (with my colleague Freedom C. Onuoha): “Franco-African Intervention in Mali & Security Issues.”
  • Stability: “The Disintegration of a ‘Model African Democracy’.”
  • World Politics Review: “Senegal’s Sall Must Turn Political Dominance into Effective Governance.”

Comments welcome. Feel free also to treat this as an open thread for recent news from the Sahel.

Senegal: Throwing Stones in Fatick

Fatick (map) is the hometown of Senegalese President Macky Sall and he served twice as its mayor. On Saturday February 9, three ministers (French) in Sall’s cabinet attended a ceremony in Fatick for the launch of the local branch of an activist organization within the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR). Youth demonstrators (from within the party’s ranks) wearing red armbands appeared, and reportedly threw rocks (French). Why?

The youths who disrupted the rally of APR members demand work. They affirmed their desire to get out of unemployment “in order to help their parents.” These youths reproach local leaders, promised important posts by the president of the republic, for “having done nothing to help youths.”

Given that youth unemployment contributed to the emergence of youth protest movements against Sall’s predecessor President Abdoulaye Wade in 2011-2012, such messages carry political dangers for Sall. Recognizing this, the President stopped in Fatick yesterday (French). He said:

I understand the distress of these youths, I understand their message. And I was surprised when I learned what happened, last Saturday. But very quickly I understand that your cry of distress was a sort of reminder concerning employment, and above all that you would like a greater presence from the political authorities.

Sall appears to retain his popularity even with the youths who demonstrated. After his stop in Fatick, “some youths, among whom some had been at the head of the group of demonstrators Saturday, expressed their support for the secretary-general [i.e., Sall] of their party, whom they accompanied up to the exit from the commune of Fatick.” Despite such support, though, this flash of anger, however brief, will likely be remembered.

In Senegal, Inauguration of Extraordinary Chambers to Try Former Chadian Leader Hissène Habré

Hissène Habré, a French-educated political scientist, rebel commander, and politician, took power in a coup in 1982 and ruled Chad until rebel forces led by Idriss Déby overthrew him in 1990. Habré has been living in Senegal ever since. Pressure to put him on trial has come from numerous forces: groups within Chad, officials in Senegal and Belgium, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the African Union, and others. For years, however, some observers felt that Senegalese authorities were stalling on the question of whether they would try Habré. Human Rights Watch has a chronology of the case here, an overview here, and a Q&A here.

Today marks an important event in the case: the inauguration of special tribunal called the Extraordinary Chambers, in Dakar. There are a number of points to be made about this event. For one thing, as VOA says, “this will be the first time a world leader is prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the government of another country.” The case will have major ramifications for future attempts to try former heads of state.

Second, there are questions to ponder about how Senegalese politics interacted with the trial. VOA quotes Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, framing the shift in Senegalese authorities’ behavior on the case as a result of the change in administration from President Abdoulaye Wade (in office 2000-2012) to new President Macky Sall.

“In 10 months, Macky Sall and [Justice Minister] Aminata Toure and the government of Senegal have moved this case more than Abdoulaye Wade had done in 12 years.  Finally, the tenacity and the perseverance of the victims is being been rewarded by this government,” [Brody] said.

What happens next? It’s hard to tell – AFP says that no details are publicly available about when the trial will start. RFI (French) gives a broad timeline: fifteen months (maximum) for investigations; seven months for the trial; and five months for appeals. That could mean that there is no final verdict until May 2015. In the meantime, this will be an important case to follow.

Senegal: A Cabinet Reshuffle and the Continuing “Bethio Affair”

On October 29, news broke that Senegalese President Macky Sall was reshuffling his cabinet. A partial list of changes is here (French). The key changes are the removal of Alioune Badara Cisse as minister of foreign affairs and the transfer of Mbaye Ndiaye (Wikipedia page in French here) from the ministry of the interior to a post as the director of the President’s cabinet. At Interior, Sall has replaced Ndiaye with Pathe Seck, a retired general.

Senegalese and international media sources (see the first two links above) state that the reason for Ndiaye’s transfer was the criticism the administration has faced for its handling of the “Bethio affair.” In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular youth leader within the Mouridiyya Sufi brotherhood and an outspoken supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade. The arrest followed the death of two men at one of the Sheikh’s houses.

The Sheikh’s imprisonment, first in Thies and now in Dakar, has evoked massive outcry from his disciples, including rioting in Dakar from October 19 to around October 22.

The president now faces criticism on at least three fronts: Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) charges (French) that the administration has treated Sheikh Bethio unfairly and targeted him for political reasons; some commentators in the press have expressed alarm (French) over the government’s inability to prevent the riots; and some commentators say (French) that the president is unfaithful to his friends – the two dismissed ministers were seen as particularly close supporters of Sall (French). Regardless of how one rates the fairness of these criticisms, I would say that the “Bethio affair” has become one of the biggest political crises Sall has faced since his inauguration in April. And as the author at the previous link writes, perhaps Sall has also “lost two friends” – if not more – in this affair.

Coda: This video shows Sheikh Bethio’s disciples (called “Thiantacones”) visiting him during his imprisonment in Thies, as they have apparently done every Thursday since his arrest.