Rioting and Rivalry as the “Affair of Sheikh Bethio” Continues in Senegal

In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular Muslim leader in the country, following the deaths of two men at one the Sheikh’s homes. Commenter Brendon Butler pointed out over the weekend that the “Bethio affair” is back in the news: last week, the Sheikh was transferred from Thies, the region where he was arrested, to the capital Dakar. Starting last Friday, after authorities forbade the Sheikh’s supporters from visiting him (French) at the Rebeuss prison, some of his followers (called “Thiantacounes”) rioted, burning two buses and causing what the linked article calls “indescribable disorder.” In a reminder of the increasingly transnational scope of the Mouridiyya Sufi order to which Sheikh Bethio belongs, his supporters also rallied outside Senegalese diplomatic missions in Paris and Marseilles (French) on Friday.

Rioting continued in Dakar on Monday:

Police fired teargas to break up the protesters who moved through the capital smashing the windows of parked cars as well as those driving past using rocks, sticks and other objects found on the road.
[...]
Street traders hastily swept up their wares and ran off as the angry protesters swarmed Independence Square in the heart of the capital, causing chaos as cars reversed and swerved to avoid projectiles.

As I said in the spring, one point to emphasize is that international English-language sources often oversimplify Sheikh Bethio’s role within the Mouridiyya brotherhood. To say that he has a large following and that he is an important figure in the country’s religious arena is accurate. To call him a “senior Mouride leader” blurs the distinction between Sheikh Bethio – who is not a descendant of the Mouridiyya’s founder Sheikh Amadou Bamba (d. 1927) – and the brotherhood’s hereditary leadership, which is based in the order’s holy city of Touba. The order’s highest living authority is Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s grandson Sheikh Maty Lèye Mbacké (biography in French here), who became the seventh Khalifa of the Mouridiyya in 2010. While the existence of religious leaders like Sheikh Bethio indicates that the brotherhood has powerful figures outside the Mbacké family, it is important not to exaggerate Sheikh Bethio’s position within the formal hierarchy of the brotherhood.

In the “Bethio affair,” both the state and the Thiantacounes have sought the support of the Mbacké family, with President Macky Sall telephoning the Khalifa (French) in April, Sheikh Bethio’s son visiting the Khalifa (French) in August, and Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye journeying to speak with Sheikh Saliou ibn Saliou Mbacké (French), the son of the late fifth Khalifa of the Mouridiyya, in the Mbour region this weekend. The position of the Mbacké family and the “Bethio affair” is complex, and I may be misunderstanding it, but my current interpretation is that the family wants the affair to end, but is not calling for any exceptional treatment for Sheikh Bethio in the judicial process.

If the complexities in the religious realm were not enough, there are the ways in which party rivalries enter into the affair. Sheikh Bethio was a strong supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade, whom current President Macky Sall defeated in March. Relations between Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the Sall administration have been tense since the election as the administration investigates allegations of corruption and the PDS moves from ruling party status to opposition status. Some voices in the Senegalese press (French) have read statements by the Sall administration as implying that the PDS is behind the riots. The PDS, meanwhile, accuses the administration (French) of creating “tension” through its handling of the affair and implies that the state’s treatment of the Sheikh flouts judicial norms. The Bethio affair, then, has become a forum for party rivalry and struggle.

On a final note, those who read French may be interested to read the reactions of Senegalese bloggers who decry the violence, assess the actions of the Thiantacounes in light of Mouride teachings, and castigate the Senegalese state as weak. These bloggers, of course, do not represent the full range of perspectives among the Senegalese. Nonetheless it is noteworthy how the affair has shaken the confidence of some Senegalese writers in the state’s capacity to maintain law and order.

Did Senegal’s Sufi Leaders Convince Wade to Drop His Constitutional Amendment?

This week, tension mounted in Senegal as President Abdoulaye Wade moved to introduce two major constitutional changes: the creation of a vice president position and a reduction in the threshold (25%, instead of the previous 50%+) necessary for a presidential candidate to win a first round victory. Protests broke out in major cities. Youth burned the homes of ruling party members. The EU and the US expressed concern. Then yesterday, the day that the amendment was due for a vote in parliament, Wade withdrew the plan to change the electoral threshold.

These developments have been well covered by Reuters, the BBC, VOA, the New York Times, and other outlets. What hasn’t received as much international coverage is the role of Senegal’s Muslim leaders. In a country that’s 95% Muslim, and where most of the Muslim belong to large Sufi brotherhoods legendary for their political influence (when they choose to wield it, that is), how did these leaders react to such a major political crisis?

A little background: the two largest Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal are the Tijaniyya and the Mouridiyya (with which Wade is publicly affiliated). Leadership of the brotherhoods is passed from one relative to another, typically from brother to brother before passing to the next generation. This structure in some ways encourages younger leaders, or marabouts, to build their own constituencies – younger marabouts who know that their turn as khalifa (head sheikh) is far off, or will never come, have some incentive to seek other avenues for exercising influence. These young marabouts don’t go so far as to create their own orders, but some have created their own distinct movements that exist (sometimes uneasily) within the larger brotherhood. This gives rise to a significant difference in style between the older marabouts, who have largely ceased giving explicit political directions to their disciples,* and the younger marabouts, some of whom do speak out.

The role of the older marabouts in the current crisis was potentially decisive. Wade’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, cited the influence of religious leaders (Fr) as one reason Wade backed off his plan. The khalifas of the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya both called, through spokesmen, for calm. According to one source, both khalifas also sent emissaries to privately dissuade Wade from pursuing the amendment, and the Tijani leadership publicly condemned the amendment (Fr). These efforts, and particularly the appeal from the Mouride leader, are seen as the main factor in Wade’s retreat.

Meanwhile, some of the younger marabouts spoke out on the amendment who spoke out made headlines. A young Mouride sheikh (Fr), grandson of the order’s founder, expressed his support for the law, and in doing so said he was speaking for all of the Mouride leadership. If comments on the web version of this article are any indication (and they may not be), his support – and his claim to speak for others – were greeted with derision, including by Mouride youth.

Another young Mouride marabout with his own proper political following and a tendency for outspokenness, Modou Kara (Fr), contented himself with counseling his followers to stay home.

A Tijani sheikh who has built his own movement, Moustapha Sy (Fr), openly condemned the law.

Looking at the younger marabouts, I would point to both genuine religious beliefs and some element of political calculation in explaining their positions. There is theological support, both within Islam and within Sufism, for all three of the positions – supporting the leader in power, abstaining from political involvement, or speaking out against perceived injustice. I would not discount belief as a factor here. But political calculation plays a role as well: openly supporting or opposing Wade could have consequences both for a marabout’s relations with the state and his relations with his own disciples, and staying neutral has implications as well.

It might be tempting to read a Tijani-Mouride split into the behavior of the marabouts, and argue that it is politically easier for a Tijani marabout to attack the ambitions of a Mouride president than it would be for a Mouride marabout to do so, but I don’t see enough data yet to draw that conclusion. In any case, it will be interesting to watch how the younger marabouts of both orders intervene in politics during the months between now and Senegal’s February 2012 presidential elections, and interesting to see whether there are more discernible signs of older marabouts working behind the scenes to promote stability.

*Indeed, some opposition youth are warning Muslim leaders this year not to issue explicit voting instructions to disciples (Fr).