Senegal: Through a Religious Lens

By: Katherine Marshall

August 31, 2016

The great festival of Tabaski is approaching; this is the feast that commemorates, in the Islamic calendar, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and God’s mercy. In the city of Dakar there are rams everywhere: rams tied up individually and in flocks, nibbling on grass or garbage. Billboards promise a ram as a prize. Every family wants a ram, to be sacrificed on the day.

Many taxis in the city sport a tail - a bunch of fiber tied to the back fender. I was told they bring good luck. It’s an old tradition, perhaps a superstition, but a visible sign of faith.

A common observation about Senegal is that religion is an integral part of life. The rams and taxi tails illustrate what is termed religiosity, as do, in a more meaningful way, the ubiquitous mosques and the calls to prayer. Religiosity is not easy to measure but by the measures that exist - surveys that ask how important religion is in your life, for example - Senegal ranks high. People also observe that religious tolerance is a national characteristic and norm. Examples come from daily life: marriages between Christians and Muslims, celebrating the festivals of other religions, and, in a Muslim majority country, decorating Christmas trees. Most significant, in a world where religious conflict is all too common, Senegal prides itself on long decades of peace and stability.

These observations suggest two questions. First, why has Senegal, in the West African region where religiously linked conflicts are common, succeeded in establishing such a strong culture of interreligious respect? And what does the high religiosity mean for the tasks of governance and development?

History explains in part the tradition of religious harmony. Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president, was Christian and he and other independence fathers and mothers inculcated a form of Senegalese laïcité or secularism that has generally worked to this day. It is described as a “bargain” that allows both secular and religious to flourish side by side. The Senegalese Sufi Muslim traditions are renowned for their openness and their acceptance of diversity. Religious leaders of the distinctive Senegalese religious “families” are seen as vital political actors but generally exercise these roles in informal ways. Catholic schools, especially, are respected for their quality and openness to students from all traditions. The very different strands in Senegalese religious beliefs and institutions and in the society more broadly make for a stable fabric that even, to date, accommodates and tolerates voices that preach extremist ideas in ways that do not disrupt. To be clear, there are tensions but also a confidence in the robust commitment to respect and harmony.

So how does the pervasive influence of religion affect governance and development? That’s a more difficult question to answer in part because it is rarely discussed in formal policy settings. There’s a veneer of secularism in a sophisticated, often technocratic discourse. The roles of both religious actors and beliefs are often unspoken, if taken for granted. Senegal balances its relationships with Western and Muslim countries in a skillful way, as it does the roles of various secular and religious actors.

But the religious backdrop is nonetheless omnipresent (a new Berkley Center/WFDD report explores how and why ). It is, for example, central to three ongoing debates that will define Senegal’s future path in important ways.

Senegal’s education system is currently divided between a self-consciously secular public system and an Islamic, decentralized, and diverse set of schools. While it has long been clear that more integration makes sense, there’s little agreement on how to do it. There’s urgency in moving ahead towards a more “Senegalese”, quality system and it is hard to envisage effective reforms that do not take the demand for religious elements in education well into account.

There’s much talk of the potential for a “demographic dividend” that can happen only if Senegal’s people have fewer children. Contraceptive use is increasing but large families are still a norm and women are far from attaining the full equality that is the national ideal. Religious beliefs play a part in attitudes towards family planning, though spacing children is well accepted. Engaging the influential religious leaders on this and other traditions like child marriage is increasingly understood to be a key to success.

Senegal has a remarkable number of children and young people and thus child protection and engaging youth have special importance. Over 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old. Again, there is wide consensus on the principles but an urgent need to translate principles into practice. And again religious leaders have vital roles to play.

Senegal faces difficult challenges ahead: the turbulent “neighborhood” of West Africa, a large impatient youth population, mounting economic competition, and the effects of climate change among them. Senegal’s remarkable religious assets, meaning especially leaders and institutions, will be needed more than ever in the future. The good news is that the openness and positive spirit that have characterized Senegal allow for dialogue on topics that might well be taboo elsewhere. It’s time to translate that potential into action.
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