Moderate Islam in Senegal as a Barrier against Religious Extremism

Aspirant leaders, a mystical community. Pictured on the right is Amadou Bamba, “the great Sufi teacher who was exiled to Gabon and Mauritania.”

Journalist Kris Berwouts from MO* traveled through Senegal to make a cross-section of a country with a unique religious history. On the one hand, he saw moderate Islam, influenced mostly by Sufism, on the other hand, the constant threat from ultra-conservative movements. “Our version of Islam protects us from the aberrations we see in neighboring countries.”

sengal is land Teranga and tolerance. He likes to show this in travel guides and tourist brochures. This is not an exaggeration, you can also feel it when you travel around Senegal.

Teranga It is the hospitality that welcomes you. People help you spontaneously. When you gain someone’s trust, he likes to include you in his circle of friends. You are quickly building friendly relations in Senegal.

Tolerance, in turn, has to do with the country’s distinctive religious history. About 95% of the population is Muslim and the majority are members of one of the four Senegalese Sufi groups.

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Sufism is the esoteric tradition in Islam. It is present in many places and tends (but not everywhere!) to be open and tolerant.

The fact that almost the entire country is organized around a Sufi brotherhood makes Senegal a special country in the Islamic world. And maybe even all over the world.

colonial resistance

It is very nice to stay in Studio 432 van Sahad Sari, in Ouakam, a pleasant suburb of Dakar. You can find his music on Spotify and YouTube. He just released a new album.

Besides being a musician, Sahad is also an active member of Baye Fall. This group belongs to the so-called brotherhood of the disciple. She suffers from a number of mystical traditions and values ​​intensely. Just think of dhikr (chanting the divine names) and poetry and meditate. So is the music.

“We distinguish between the essence of religion and what comes culturally from the Arabs.”

Sahad: Muridiyah arose out of resistance to colonialism. Our founder, the great Sufi master Amadou Bamba, was exiled to Gabon and Mauritania. We cherish a high quality spirituality, based on humanity.

The Islam advocated by the Arab countries adheres firmly to Islamic law and its five pillars: belief, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

This, according to Saad, is not the essence. We lack dimension. We are testing Islam from within. Mysticism and esoteric experience are important. We try to be generous and humble, to share. To be of community service.

It amazes me, by the way, that many Senegalese consider their Islam to be different from what the Arab world sees as “universal” Islam. I present my statement to Sahid. “In fact, the Arabs colonized Islam,” he explains.

We differentiate between the essence of religion and what comes culturally from the Arabs. This is just encapsulation and has nothing to do with the essence of religion. We take that pack away and make it Senegalese. Arabs were often viewed as superior. They thought so, we thought so too. Senegalese Islam wanted to get rid of that.

The musician smiled: “It worked out well.” Islam has made us ‘tropical’.

Karsten Ten Brink (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Posters of religious figures in Dakar. Left: Amadou Bamba, leader of the Mourid community. There is only one picture of him with a scarf covering most of his face.

The influence of Wahhabism

We meet Alion Tyne, one of the main thinkers and activists in Senegalese civil society. It also emphasizes the importance of the Brotherhood. “Our Sufi Islam is the dominant ideology here. The Brotherhood has a great influence on the population, they are real power blocks. Their tentacles reach deep into economic and political life.

“Since the 1980s, the influence of Wahhabism in Senegal has been increasing.”

However, add to this the presence of pressure from the Wahhabis in recent decades. The conservative movement within Islam, which is mainly followed by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, takes the oldest Islamic views as a guiding principle. It was introduced by Senegalese returning from the Middle East and North Africa.

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© Chris Beerwats

Taine agrees that the influence of the Wahhabis has been increasing, especially since the 1980s. “For them, Senegalese Islam is not Islam but a mistake.”

In recent years, they have reacted much faster than in the past and are using social media extensively. We constantly hear things we haven’t heard before. They are quick to find blasphemous things. They also noticeably talk about clothes, especially women’s clothes.

This morning, Suhad Sarr expressed his concern about the Wahhabi pressure: “The climate of hatred against homosexuality is mainly tolerated. It is a very negative Islam.

However, we must make an important caveat. This does not mean that there is a tolerant and open Senegalese Islam on the one hand, and a conservative Islam on the other. Sufi Islam of the same groups is also under pressure and has seen the development of its conservative wing.

pressure from within

In a flowery courtyard, behind the Islamic cemetery of Yoff in Dakar, I spoke to Mami Mukhtar Joy. Jay is a spokesperson for the Islamist lobby Jamra. Gueye and Jamra position themselves in the traditions of Senegalese Islam, but they very clearly advocate a conservative agenda.

Our version of Islam has protected us from the aberrations that we also see in neighboring countries: fundamentalism, extremism and violence. We reject it. Senegalese are very tolerant of the diversity found in the Muslim community here. We get together, celebrate each other’s parties. It is perfect harmony.

“Women here get very little protection, and there are countless news reports about murders and disappearances.”

Gueye says followers of other faiths are welcome, too. On Easter, the Catholic minority invites us and shares their festive meal. We do the same at the end of Ramadan. We give them all respect. There are even mixed marriages. We also have the best relationships with spiritists.

Watch out, if somewhere we see extreme values, things that we think threaten society, we condemn them. The traditional concern is the neglect of Quranic schools. Education is well organized in this country, but Koranic schools are treated like a stepmother.

looks nice. However, not everyone is equally convinced of Jamra’s kind intentions. “The group has a very conservative agenda, because our feminist struggle goes against Islam,” he said. Aya Diao*, one of the country’s most vocal advocates for women’s rights.

Diao knows what you’re talking about. In the past, she and some of her supporters have instigated a number of rapes of Quran students by Jamrah teachers. We have been particularly blamed for that. Then they look for elements of our private lives to tarnish our image. And if they don’t find it, they will make it up.

Sexual violence is a major problem in Senegal. Rape, sexual exploitation and abuse of students are common in Senegalese education. Human Rights Watch notes that girls are often subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. Many of these cases go unreported, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable.

Over the past year, a hate campaign against the LGBTQ community has turned into a real smear campaign. So a lot of LGBTQ+ are trying to leave the country. Cinder is also involved in this polarization. For example, the group formed the basis of a bill to make existing legal penalties against LGBT people more severe.

Two-faced: modern and ultra-conservative

To better understand the tension between progressive and conservative Senegal, I will speak with the Canadian philosopher dolphin abadiwho studied at UCAD (University Cheikh Anta Diop).

The women here get a little protection. There are countless news stories about murders, disappearances, etc. Senegal loves to flirt with its traditions Terangatolerance and the quality of his intellectual and cultural life. But the country has an undercurrent of conservatism – including religious – that wants to instil itself in people’s minds. If you’ve been there for a while, you’ll notice the anti-Western forces seemingly sweeping across the country.

According to Abadi, Senegal has two sides: “One aspires to its own modernity, and the other is riven by ultra-conservative movements, some linked to jihadism from neighboring countries. We must not forget the vast majority who live outside the effervescent bubble of the intellectual and artistic Dakar.


The lofty word came out: jihad. Everyone I spoke to acknowledges the conservative pressure on Senegalese Islam. Both by Senegalese who promote orthodox Islam with the support of Saudi Arabia, and groups like Jamra which are part of Senegalese Islam with Sufi Sisters, watching from within the traditions that matter to them.

But what is the connection to violent extremist Islam, which is very close given Senegal’s geographical location? Someone even said to me: Suppose a great leader in a group embraces extremism, his followers immediately follow.

“The jihadists work very methodically. They know they cannot take over the Brotherhood.

This will not happen, it seems in unison among my interlocutors. “Great intellectuals run the Brotherhood. They are real bastions of power and have great resources. “They will not take up arms,’” says Alioune Tain. “Even the most extreme Wahhabis, despite differing opinions, are part of our nonviolent Islam.”

Sahad Sarr also does not see the Brotherhood immediately entering into alliances with jihadism: “That would be an unnatural alliance. We do not intend to allow that to happen. We adhere to our tolerant Islam.

Mami Mokhtar Ghaye, however, is the spokesperson for the outspoken conservatism within Senegalese Islam, distancing himself from extreme fundamentalism.

We reject violence and hatred. The danger of extremists getting off track is a permanent one. The state is vigilant and trying to help. We consider terrorists from neighboring countries criminal networks trying to steal their mafia business under a religious banner. This has nothing to do with Islam.

Alioune Taine concludes: “The jihadists are working according to plan. They know they cannot take over the Brotherhood. They are infiltrating where the state is weak, playing with frustrations and disagreements. They have done it elsewhere and they want to do it here. They are already working on it. They know Where are we at risk?

This article is part of a series and has been created with the support of the Pascal Decroiss Fund for Private Journalism.

* nickname. It is about the same person I referred to in the first part of this report.

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