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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.

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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.

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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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