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.