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.

Africa Blog/Reports Roundup: Somalia Famine, Mali Elections, Baga, and More

Famine Early Warning Systems Network (.pdf): “Mortality Among Populations of Southern and Central Somalia Affected by Severe Food Insecurity and Famine during 2010-2012.”

Africa Research Institute: “After Boroma: Consensus, representation and parliament in Somaliland.”

Somalia Newsroom: “Toward an Economic Recovery in Somalia.”

Bruce Whitehouse: “Why Mali Won’t Be Ready for July Elections.”

AFP:

Senegal and Chad signed an agreement on Friday to allow special tribunal judges to carry out investigations in Chad into former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, ahead of his trial for war crimes.
Habre’s prosecution, delayed for years by Senegal where he has lived since being ousted in 1990, will set a historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have only been tried in international courts.

Financial Times:

“A French writer from Algeria,” was how a tight-lipped Albert Camus characterised himself in October 1957 on accepting his nomination as the second-youngest winner of the Nobel prize in literature. These simple words concealed a churning heart. The normally voluble Camus, then 43, was in the midst of a period of self-imposed silence.

After years of championing equal rights for Arabs in his native Algeria, Camus, the son of a Pied-Noir family descended from European settlers, found himself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting any notion of his homeland gaining independence from France.

Jacques Enaudeau: “In Search of the ‘African Middle Class’.”

Baobab: “Djibouti’s Development: Location, Location, Location.” A video with a link to a report.

Africa in DC: “Anti-Federalism, Colonial Nostalgia, and Development in Nigeria: Lagos State Governor at SAIS.”

Alkasim Abdulkadir: “After Baga, JTF Lost in a Maze of Rocks and Hard Places.”

Al Jazeera: “Jailed Boko Haram Members Seek Pardon from Nigeria.”

Muslim First Names in West Africa

Names carry associations. We aren’t always even aware of what associations our own names carry, let alone those of others. Over time, I’ve done a certain amount of thinking about Muslim names in West Africa. Perhaps what I have to say will be painfully obvious, but I thought I might share a few simple points in case they are helpful to other outsiders working to understand cultural context. What I say below draws heavily on my experiences in Nigeria and Senegal and I hope you will assume neither that these remarks apply everywhere in West Africa, nor that my observations apply only to West Africa (if that makes sense). I talk here almost entirely about people’s first or given names, rather than family names.

The first thing to know is that Muslims often name their children for prominent religious figures. Let’s take a few male names. Muhammad (rendered in many different ways), Ahmad (which derives from the same h-m-d root in Arabic), and Mustafa (Arabic, “the chosen one”) refer, of course, to the Prophet Muhammad. Male children are also often named for other prophets, such as Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham), Yusuf (Joseph), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dawud (David), Sulayman (Solomon), and Isa (Jesus). The names of the four men considered Rightly Guided Caliphs by Sunnis are also popular choices – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, such as Hamza, also have many namesakes. A fourth category for names includes those that refer to God by combining the word ‘abd (Arabic for servant) with one of God’s names – ‘Abd Allah, ‘Abd al Rahman, ‘Abd al Razik, etc. Muslim men are also named for the Prophet Muhammad’s family members – his grandsons Hasan and Husayn.

Muslim women are often named for members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, such as his wives Khadija, A’isha, and Zaynab, or his daughter Fatima. Muslim women’s names also sometimes come from feminine nouns in Arabic, such as Rahma (“mercy”). 

Second, in West Africa, two distinctive phonetic changes may occur to these names. One is that Muslims may pronounce Arabic case endings that are sometimes left silent – for Muhammad, we find Mahamadou; for Zaynab, Zaynabou; for ‘Ali, Aliyu. Additionally, Muslims for whom Arabic is not their first language may alter certain sounds, particularly the “th” as in the English “think.” So for example we find Usman or Ousman or Ousmane for ‘Uthman; or, putting these two phonetic changes together, Usmanu. In Francophone contexts, further spelling changes may occur: Abdoulaye for ‘Abd Allah, Ramatoulaye for Rahma Allah, etc.

Third, a name may stand in for another name. For example, if more than two sons in a northern Nigerian Muslim household are named Muhammad, the first may be called Auwalu (from the Arabic “awwal,” which means first), the second Sani (from the Arabic “al thani”), etc. Muslims who share a name with a famous historical Muslim personage, or with an older relative, may be nicknamed in honor of that person. In northern Nigeria, a Muslim named Usman may be called Shehu (from the Arabic shaykh) in honor of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), the reformer and conqueror. In Senegal, a boy named Malik/Malick may be called “Al Hajj” (even though he has not yet completed the pilgrimage himself) in honor of the Sufi leader Al Hajj Malik Sy.

To talk just a little about last names, they can be structured in a variety of ways. Two forms I am familiar with from northern Nigeria are descent-based names and place names. In the first model, a Muslim man’s middle name may be his father’s name, and his third name his grandfather’s name. “Muhammad Ibrahim,” in this format, would be Muhammad the son of Ibrahim. In the second model, we find a place name as the last name. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1922-1992), for example, came from the village of Gumi.

I hope these observations are helpful. It is difficult to generalize, of course. My main goal is to get outsiders thinking about the symbolic associations different names carry, and especially the ways that the early Muslim community and the prophets are constantly invoked in Muslim daily life through people’s names.

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.

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.

Crises in Mali: Roundup of Reactions from the Region

News is coming fast out of the Sahel these days, so I may default to roundups many days this week rather than attempting cohesive analytical pieces. Today’s roundup is about Mali and the overlapping crises there, but indirectly: the links below discuss reactions, both verbal and physical, by a variety of actors in the surrounding region. Before we jump into regional news, though, one important resource on the situation inside Mali is AP’s timeline of the French intervention.

Regional

  • The Guardian with a regional map.
  • The Washington Post on the regional refugee crisis.
  • Al Jazeera on the January 19 Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) summit in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. More here, with details on the ECOWAS force, its leaders, etc. (The other key acronym to know is AFISMA or the African-led International Support Mission in Mali).
  • Liberte (French) on the upcoming African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 29, and the question of funding for an ECOWAS force in Mali.
  • Troop movements/announcements/news: Senegal, Benin, Liberia, Nigeria, and Chad (French). Not a comprehensive list, of course.

Algeria

Yesterday, at a press conference on the recent hostage tragedy in In Amenas, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal stated (French) that Algeria “will not send one soldier to Mali” and will concentrate on “protecting its borders and its territory.” Sellal added that Algeria “encourages dialogue among the different parties” in Mali.

Niger

This blog post (French), from a site with which I am not familiar, does a nice job laying out Niger’s attitudes toward the situation in Mali. Key points include Niger’s preference for securing Malian territorial integrity before holding elections, and Niger’s view that the situation in Mali is, for Niger, an internal security threat as well as a Malian problem. You can read an interview Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum gave to RFI here (French).

Mauritania

Al Bawaba depicts widespread opposition to the French operation in Mali, and to the possibility of Mauritanian military involvement there, among religious and political leaders in Mauritania. A coalition of three parties, however, supports intervention in Mali (Arabic, French). Mauritania has placed areas along its border with Mali under military control (French).

Nigeria

On January 19, gunmen attacked a Nigerian military unit in Okene, Kogi State, killing two and wounding five. The unit was preparing to deploy to Mali. The Nigerian military has blamed Boko Haram for the attack. Jama’a Ansar al Muslimin fi Bilad al Sudan (Arabic: The Society of Defenders of Muslims in the Land of the Blacks), a purported splinter group from Boko Haram, has claimed responsibility for the incident, saying that it was targeting the unit because of Nigeria’s involvement in the Mali intervention. IRIN (link above) has more on “JAMBS.” The group’s statement (which was issued in English, from what I can tell) is here.

Any other news? Please let us know in the comments.