Profit, Prayer, And Power In West Africa

The supplicants come on bended knees, crawling to pay homage to the supreme spiritual leader of Senegal's Islamic Mourides brotherhood. At his feet, they hand over offerings, their eyes bright with anticipation of his blessing.

The payments in exchange for Khalif General Saliou Mbacke's hand on their heads are coins wrapped in cotton handkerchiefs. Combined, the modest offerings the size of plums have created a giant financial storehouse.

The Mourides are an anomaly in Africa, an international capitalist jihad that mixes faith, profit, and prayer. The brotherhood is a multimillion-dollar network that in effect runs the politics and economy of this West African country with the acumen of a multinational corporation.

Mouridism, founded in 1884, is the fastest-growing sect in this predominantly Muslim country, claiming 45 percent of Senegal's 8 million people. And, say many social analysts, the Mourides are the social glue holding this unusually stable country together in an otherwise turbulent region.

"They are influential in every strata of society - agriculture ... commerce, industry," says Kadim Mbacke, an Islamic studies expert at the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa, a think tank based in Dakar, the capital. "They are a stabilizing influence by being so organized and by creating social cohesion. They believe in discipline [and] hard work, provide social services, and give Senegalese a sense of belonging," he says.

They have taken over Senegal's Chamber of Commerce and dominate most sectors of the economy. No politician can expect to win an election without endorsement of the Mourides.

Followers beg on the streets to fill the brotherhood's coffers. In return, the poor receive schooling and social support that the state can't provide.

The Mourides' entrepreneurial influence extends well beyond Senegal to Paris, Washington, Spain, Italy, and especially New York, where thousands of aggressive street vendors peddle watches and umbrellas and send their proceeds back home.

The mecca - and coffers - for believers is this dusty town, where black Africa's biggest mosque, with its 260-feet-high minarets, can be seen from afar.

Millions of dollars are sent to this blisteringly hot religious capital in the middle of Senegal's dusty plain, which serves as a virtually autonomous tax-free state.

Some of the money is going to repair the huge mosque, where the tapping of masonry blends with the calls to prayer by the mosque's clerics. The towering ceiling gives sanctuary not just spiritually, but also from the heat, with everyone from thieves to holy men reclining on cushions and carpets on the cool floor near the fountain of holy water that quenches their thirst.

What would prompt peasants or beggars to send their precious profits to Touba? What is the secret to this extraordinary appeal? Members say that to be a Mouride is more than being a Muslim. They proudly note that it is the only brotherhood native to Senegal. The group weaves in customs of the animist Wolof ethnic group and uses Islam to promote development and a sense of identity.

"The Mourides created something totally new - accommodating Islam into an indigenous black culture," says Mamadou Diouf, a political scientist with the independent social science institute CODESRIA in Dakar.

He and other academics trace the Mourides' popularity to nationalization following Senegal's independence in 1960. Their economic clout increased after 1979, when a recession and government austerity measures set in.

The Mourides' customs are steeped in Wolof culture, from the crafts, dancing, and music. It is a less doctrinaire version of Islam than that of the Middle East. Many followers do not drop everything to pray five times a day. Lapses in attending mosque daily are tolerated, as long as one looks after the interests of the spiritual leader, such as giving him money.

The line between profit and spirituality is thin for many, says Mr. Mbacke. "The belief is that the more you give to the coffers, the better chance you have of going to heaven. That is why they are such good businessmen."

Says Mata Bousso, a marabout, or spiritual leader, in the mosque: "For we Mourides, work is as important as prayer. This makes us disciplined people."

However, critics say the money is not invested in development projects, and that the brotherhood's central authority runs counter to the notion of democracy that Senegal purports to promote. They point to a revolt by students against the rigid hierarchy earlier this year - which was quashed by the brotherhood.

Advocates, however, say the Mourides respond to a need that goes deep among Senegalese. "This was invented, conceived, and carried out here as uniquely Senegalese. It is a brand of Islam which is intrinsically our own," says Cheikh Mbacke Sene, a former Fulbright scholar and Muslim activist. "The Mourides give us a great sense of belonging that no one else can."

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