In Senegal, religious leaders join constitutional debate

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade abandoned his efforts to lower the electoral threshold for a presidential victory. In a 95 percent Muslim country, religious leaders can influence the debate.

By , Guest blogger

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    Men protest against proposed constitutional changes in central Dakar, Senegal on June 23. Police fired tear gas on thousands of protestors demonstrating Thursday morning against a proposed law that critics said could benefit Senegal's longtime leader President Abdoulaye Wade, and his family.
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This week, tension mounted in Senegal as President Abdoulaye Wade moved to introduce two major constitutional changes: the creation of a vice president position and a reduction in the threshold (25 percent, instead of the previous 50 percent plus) necessary for a presidential candidate to win a first round victory. Protests broke out in major cities. Youth burned the homes of ruling party members. The European Union and the US expressed concern. Then yesterday, the day that the amendment was due for a vote in parliament, Wade withdrew the plan to change the electoral threshold.

These developments have been well covered by Reuters, the BBC, VOA, The New York Times, and other outlets. What hasn’t received as much international coverage is the role of Senegal’s Muslim leaders. In a country that’s 95 percent Muslim, and where most of the Muslim belong to large Sufi brotherhoods legendary for their political influence (when they choose to wield it, that is), how did these leaders react to such a major political crisis?

A little background: the two largest Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal are the Tijaniyya and the Mouridiyya (with which Wade is publicly affiliated). Leadership of the brotherhoods is passed from one relative to another, typically from brother to brother before passing to the next generation. This structure in some ways encourages younger leaders, or marabouts, to build their own constituencies – younger marabouts who know that their turn as khalifa (head sheikh) is far off, or will never come, have some incentive to seek other avenues for exercising influence. These young marabouts don’t go so far as to create their own orders, but some have created their own distinct movements that exist (sometimes uneasily) within the larger brotherhood. This gives rise to a significant difference in style between the older marabouts, who have largely ceased giving explicit political directions to their disciples,* and the younger marabouts, some of whom do speak out.

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The role of the older marabouts in the current crisis was potentially decisive. Wade’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, cited the influence of religious leaders (Fr) as one reason Wade backed off his plan. The khalifas of the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya both called, through spokesmen, for calm. According to one source, both khalifas also sent emissaries to privately dissuade Wade from pursuing the amendment, and the Tijani leadership publicly condemned the amendment (Fr). These efforts, and particularly the appeal from the Mouride leader, are seen as the main factor in Wade’s retreat.

Meanwhile, some of the younger marabouts who spoke out on the amendment who spoke out made headlines. A young Mouride sheikh (Fr), grandson of the order’s founder, expressed his support for the law, and in doing so said he was speaking for all of the Mouride leadership. If comments on the web version of this article are any indication (and they may not be), his support – and his claim to speak for others – were greeted with derision, including by Mouride youth.

Another young Mouride marabout with his own proper political following and a tendency for outspokenness, Modou Kara (Fr), contented himself with counseling his followers to stay home.

A Tijani sheikh who has built his own movement, Moustapha Sy (Fr), openly condemned the law.

Looking at the younger marabouts, I would point to both genuine religious beliefs and some element of political calculation in explaining their positions. There is theological support, both within Islam and within Sufism, for all three of the positions – supporting the leader in power, abstaining from political involvement, or speaking out against perceived injustice. I would not discount belief as a factor here. But political calculation plays a role as well: openly supporting or opposing Wade could have consequences both for a marabout’s relations with the state and his relations with his own disciples, and staying neutral has implications as well.

It might be tempting to read a Tijani-Mouride split into the behavior of the marabouts, and argue that it is politically easier for a Tijani marabout to attack the ambitions of a Mouride president than it would be for a Mouride marabout to do so, but I don’t see enough data yet to draw that conclusion. In any case, it will be interesting to watch how the younger marabouts of both orders intervene in politics during the months between now and Senegal’s February 2012 presidential elections, and interesting to see whether there are more discernible signs of older marabouts working behind the scenes to promote stability.

*Indeed, some opposition youth are warning Muslim leaders this year not to issue explicit voting instructions to disciples (Fr).

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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