by Simon Kiba, Senegal, October 1997
THEME = ISLAM
Islam in Senegal is mainly based on the Brotherhoods, centred around two great marabout families. In fact, nowhere else do marabouts command as much influence as in Senegal where several Brotherhoods are active. Most Senegalese Muslims tend to place themselves under the authority and direction of the Great Marabout, in much the same way as a Catholic obeys the Church's commandments. The Brotherhoods are led by Khalifs, always chosen from the Founder's family. To belong to a marabout family is to be someone special. It's not a clergy but something like it.
The Brotherhoods preach and teach religious moderation in Islam, insisting on toleration, non-violence, etc. and they have very good relations with non-Islamic groups. Better still, it is a form of Islam that condemns all varieties of fundamentalism. On many occasions, in Senegal, some people have written and spoken on fundamentalism, targeting the Brotherhoods first of all. The Brotherhoods are not afraid of encouraging hard work (both manual and intellectual), and they make an effective contribution to the country's development. Because they are able to provide work for people, discontent due to unemployment is thus reduced.
There is still a lot to be done in Senegal. The government does not make a direct investment in religion, but takes every opportunity to help Islam. For instance, when some Non-Governmental Organisations organised a trip for Senegalese Imams to visit Indonesia and Egypt, the government gave its approval. The purpose of the visit was to see how, in these advanced Islamic countries, the question of family planning is tackled. Afterwards, a symposium on: "Islam and AIDS" was organised.
The government is directly concerned with the teaching of Arabic in schools. For the 1997-1998 school year, about fifty teachers of Arabic were employed. They first of all followed an appropriate training session, as they were to teach other subjects, in addition to religion. They have their place in the governing Socialist Party.
These teachers and intellectuals generally won't have anything to do with fundamentalism. They are "moderates". As for extremists, anyone described as a "leftist" is considered to be an anarchist; anyone to the far right, is a "fundamentalist". Members of the Brotherhoods know well enough that they will be the first to be targeted by these extremists, so they do their utmost to negate any form of violence conducted in the name of religion.
In the four or five important towns of Senegal, there are areas which give cause for concern - the shanty-towns. Ever since the 1973 drought, many poor farmers and their families have come there. People living there lose their bearings, and children born in this sort of atmosphere are often inclined to violence - the law of: an "eye for an eye"; and to drug addiction.
There is a Ministry for Urbanisation which gets by as best it can. Young people want schools, libraries and play grounds, but most of all they want employment. Work is available, but not all the young people can profit from this as they are uneducated, and these days, even just for labouring jobs, you need a minimum of education.
The government wants to do something to improve the situation and is hoping to get help from the mosques. The mosques have surrounding buildings which could be put to good use. In Senegal, there's a mosque in every street.
A meeting will soon be held in Dakar, with the theme: "Islam and city development - overcoming problems in the cities". It's better do something about it, before it's too late!
At the launching of this initiative, the Minister of Urbanisation remarked that "the 90% of the population which comprises the Muslim community, are all enthusiastic when it comes to mysticism and theology, likewise in the field of education; but are very weak in their efforts concerning the social side of things". The importance of the mosques must be insisted on. To do this, there must be a change in the way of thinking, and appropriate structures must be established. The Minister has already had a working session with the Catholic Church in Ziguinchor. The Church is well-organised in the social sphere.
African women do an enormous amount of work, but when it comes to organisation and decision-making concerning the mosque and the faithful, they're not allowed to say anything. Anything concerning religion has to be referred to the Great Marabout. And when it comes to ideas for development, the civil authorities have to be contacted. Young people are obliged to do the same. Also, in Islam, the men must be separated from the women.
A challenge goes out to the city mosques to help the people enjoy a better quality of life. But necessary means are needed, plus a great deal of good will and courage.