Senegalese politicians court leaders of age-old Muslim sect
Sufi brotherhoods provide key support for Senegalese presidential candidates, but fragmentation within the groups could spill over into politics, writes guest blogger Alex Thurston.
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Why did I bold “great-grandson”? Let’s do a little math. Sheikh Amadou Bamba died in 1927. The Sheikh had a number of sons. In Senegalese Sufi brotherhoods the system of hereditary succession works laterally – ie, leadership typically passes from one brother to another inside the same generation before passing to the next generation. In polygamous families, the number of descendants can multiply rapidly, to the point where there can be dozens of potential male heirs. As political scientist Dr. Leonardo Villalon wrote in 1995 with regard to Senegal (see his book Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal, p. 137),Skip to next paragraph
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Marabouts each face the thorny problem of legitimating their influence and maintaining the cohesion of the saintly lineages in the face of a large and ever-growing number of heirs…In the first generation, that of the founder’s sons, it has frequently been possible to achieve such legitimation. Every indication, however, points to the potential for fragmentation in the next generation.
Such fragmentation spills over into the political realm. One way that young marabouts, disgruntled about having to wait for their “turn” as brotherhood leader (or doubting that their turn will ever come), can make a name for themselves is by entering politics. A few have flirted with running for office, and some have become prominent public backers of candidates and politicians. This fragmented arena also includes rising religious stars who don’t come from the families of the founders; rising stars who build mass youth followings can become serious political actors.
All of these developments threaten the centralization of political influence in the person of the brotherhood leader or khalifa – a process that has been going on for decades now. Politicians must therefore navigate a more complicated field than before when they are trying to court support from the brotherhoods. In the 1960s, Senghor built a strong relationship with the Mouride khalifa Sheikh Fallou Mbacke (a son of Sheikh Amadou Bamba – see a photograph of Senghor and Mbacke here) and his successors, and therefore enjoyed a considerable degree of political support from Mourides throughout much of his twenty years in office. In 2012, Wade, and everyone else, will have to court a larger number of religious leaders.
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