Last week, Senegalese authorities arrested the religious leader Sheikh Bethio Thioune and eleven of his disciples in connection with the deaths of two men at one of Thioune’s homes. Thioune is being held in Thies, and his disciples have staged protests there; the events in dispute occurred around Mbour. Reuters writes that the case “may strain the relationship between Islamic orders and the country’s justice system,” but I think there is room for more nuance than that statement contains.
Thioune is a member of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, one of the two main brotherhoods in Senegal. He has attracted a good deal of attention and notoriety for his explicit support of former President Abdoulaye Wade in 2007 and 2012.
Thioune’s large following and his outspokenness within Senegalese politics may give an inflated sense of his status within the Mouridiyya; crucially, he is not part of the family of the order’s founder, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba. In 2006-2007, when I was in Senegal, older friends gently mocked me for attending some of Thioune’s meetings, and made it clear that they considered him neither a scholar nor a serious religious personage. Thioune’s gatherings had a reputation for a party-like atmosphere, where youth (even drunk partygoers returning from downtown clubs in Dakar) could find a meal, a good time, and even a mate – Thioune was known for marrying off youths on the spot. My sense is that Thioune’s reputation has not improved in the last five years, and that many within the Mouridiyya would prefer that he not be the face of their brotherhood. Nevertheless, he has a devoted and large following.
The events that led to Thioune’s arrest are murky, and sorting through the competing and heavily biased accounts online is difficult. One account (French) depicts the two deceased men as followers who were excommunicated by the Sheikh and made “pariahs” by his disciples because their adulation for Thioune swelled to the point that they took the Sheikh for God Himself. Another account (French) depicts the Sheikh’s followers as divided into two camps on the question of his divinity, with the “moderates” (those who believe Thioune is not divine) having pursued and clashed with “extremists” (those who believe Thioune is divine) who came to venerate the Sheikh. An eyewitness account (French, more here) from the side of the deceased makes no reference to the issue of divinity, but rather says that their group of disciples came to see the Sheikh, were told that he was unavailable, and were then attacked as they sang praise songs.
While Thioune is in prison, his family is trying to calm the situation. Thioune’s son Khadim has visited the family of one of the deceased men to offer his and his father’s condolences (French). Yet demonstrations by disciples in Thies show the potential for tensions between Thioune’s movement and the authorities to escalate.
Does Thioune’s arrest have any relation to Wade’s loss? In other words, has Thioune lost a protector and become vulnerable now that a different president holds office? Senegal’s new President Macky Sall has pledged, through a spokesman, not to intervene in the case (French). The facts are hard to determine, but some of Thioune’s disciples view the arrest as political. The Chief of the Sheikh’s “Inner Guard,” Cheikh Bamba Faye, has told the press (French) that he sees in the arrest a “settling of political scores.” Such perceptions among Thioune’s disciples could lead to further conflict. “The country,” Faye said, “risks catching fire.” This may be exaggerated, but in any case it points to the fact that relations between Sall and pro-Wade religious leaders (again, it is worth distinguishing here between Thioune and the senior Mouride leadership) could deteriorate.