“Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

Youssou Ndour, the Senegalese musician who now serves as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, made headlines in the Senegalese press this weekend for saying (French), “I sincerely think that these people who are destroying the tombs of saints and historic sites [in northern Mali] are not Muslims.”

Statements like Ndour’s, denying membership in the Muslim community to Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims, are not rare. Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, Northern Nigeria, has made similar remarks about the rebel sect Boko Haram:

We cannot call these people Muslims. They are transgressors, who commit heinous crimes, which are totally condemnable. Islam is and will remain a religion of peace and even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SWA) lived peacefully with followers of other faiths. Therefore, no one can justify attacking places of worship belonging to other faiths as Islamic.

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely. One must be careful with terminology, of course: I do not consider Ndour and Gaidam’s statements equivalent to formal declarations of takfir (excommunication). But when analysts use “takfiri” as a synonym for “jihadi” or “terrorist,” they risk implying that such groups are the only ones willing to be exclusivist, and they risk sacrificing historical and contextual depth. Over time, Muslims of many different theological and ideological stripes have been willing to deny the Islam of their rivals – even the Sufis who are so often assumed to be only targets of excommunication, never its proponents.

What is your reaction to Ndour’s statement? What effects do you think it might have on audiences in Senegal and Mali?

On Youssou Ndour and the Senegalese Elections

On Monday, January 2nd, Senegal’s most famous singer, Youssou Ndour, announced that he will contest the country’s presidential election scheduled for February 26. Ndour’s candidacy does not come out of nowhere – speculation that the singer would run for president began as early as the fall, when Ndour said he would increase his political involvement in order to help hold politicians accountable. Then in late November, Ndour announced he would cancel 2012 tour dates in order to further deepen his involvement. From these indications it’s clear that Ndour is not just flirting with politics: he has a plan in place.

But does he have a chance at the presidency?

Ndour likely expects that several features of the race will play to his advantage. First is the strong and highly visible opposition to incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade. Wade’s perceived failures on the economic front and his perceived political greed – his current electoral bid, for what could be his third term, is seen as unconstitutional by some – sparked mass protests in the capital Dakar and elsewhere early in 2011. By the summer, the youth protest movement was making a strong political impact; a June 23 protest forced Wade to withdraw proposed changes to the electoral code that would have eased the path to his re-election. The youth protest movement M23 (named for the date of the June protest) has been led in part by the rappers’ collective Y En A Marre (“Fed Up”), which highlights a second feature of the political scene that may help Ndour: the weakness and division of traditional opposition politicians, who have mostly been followers, not leaders, in the protest wave. With cultural figures already developing a strong influence over this election, Ndour may feel that he can take the emerging model of the musician-politician to a new level. Ndour can also highlight other aspects of his career – his role as a businessman, his investments in Senegal, and his media holdings – as qualifications for the presidency.

At the same time, Ndour faces a number of obstacles. One is that at 52, he is of a different generation than the youth whose votes he would need to win. Ndour certainly has pan-generational popularity, but part of Y En A Marre’s success at mobilizing youth seems to have come from a spirit of youth solidarity that leaves out older opposition politicians and could leave out Ndour as well. Another obstacle is that many Senegalese voters – including many youth – may feel that Ndour lacks the political experience necessary to be president. The BBC’s interviews in the streets of Dakar found that several young men felt this way:

Djibril Tal, 29, a taxi driver, argues that “music and politics are two different realities”.

“Of course we love him as a singer, but it’s a bit pretentious of him to think he can rule this country,” he says.

Abou Soumare, who intends to vote for the first time next month, gives me the same sort of comment as he makes his way to a local dusty field for evening football training.

“He clearly doesn’t have the political maturity and experience to be a president,” the 19 year old says.

Finally, there is the question of how the numbers will stack up. Given the divided field, the opposition’s best hope is to bring Wade’s numbers under 50% in the first round and thereby force a second round, in which it would be possible to unite around one opposition candidate and defeat the incumbent. Ndour will likely not take many votes away from Wade, but will rather divide the opposition’s portion of the electoral “pie” into even more slices. Ndour could end up placing second, but as just one of four or five major opposition candidates he could just as easily place lower. Indeed, the other contestants have advantages he does not, including long-standing networks of patronage and support on the ground that will help turn out the vote in ways that mere popularity cannot. The ultimate outcome of the first round will also depend partly on the integrity of the vote, of course; some fear that a rigged or partly rigged election will give Wade over 50% in the first round, rendering moot the question of how well the various opposition candidates perform.

Ndour’s candidacy has attracted a lot of international media attention (which is possibly another advantage for his campaign). You can read Drew Hinshaw’s solid profile of the singer here, and Elizabeth Flock has an interesting comparative look at other musician-politicians here.

What are your impressions of Ndour’s candidacy? Do you see it as a game-changer?