Senegal: Islam, democracy, sexy

Not Iran this time!

I’ve been in Senegal the last couple of weeks. And, you know? Senegal is (1) 90% Muslim, and (2) a vibrant democracy.

The opposition won the last couple of elections. The press is free — sometimes obnoxiously so. Human rights violations are relatively rare. (Nonexistent, really, by African standards.) Senegal has never had a military dictatorship, a civil war, or a coup. Okay, the first couple of Presidents ruled for twenty years each, but they seem to be past that — the current President won a free and fair election. He’s also term limited, and everyone is already looking forward to a gloriously democratic free-for-all in a couple of years when he steps down.

I don’t want to overstate here. Senegal has all the usual African problems. It’s desperately poor. About a third of the population is still illiterate. There’s spectacular corruption. The President is clearly grooming his son for the succession; this involves putting Junior in the path of some rather large business opportunities. And while Senegal is a democracy, I might hesitate to call it a fully functional liberal democracy. Media that criticize the President too sharply may get hassled or shut down, government money is poured out like water to win elections, and many Ministers and members of Parliament are pretty openly for sale.

On the other-other hand, the opposition won the midterm elections last year, sweeping the President’s party out of almost every local government. To his obvious irritation and dismay. You don’t see that happening in Turkmenistan or Belarus.

So why doesn’t Senegal get any respect?
Really. Whenever you see pundits talking about democracy and Islam, it’s all “well, Turkey, and perhaps Indonesia, ummm, maybe Malaysia? Wait, does Albania count?”

It’s hard to avoid thinking that Senegal gets overlooked because it’s, you know. Down there.

But Senegal’s not even alone. Two other Francophone West African countries — Mali and Niger — are far down the road to democracy. Both have various problems, but they’re definitely holding free elections and they’re moving in the direction of liberalism as well. And they’re just as Islamic as Senegal. (Maybe a bit more. Some of Senegal’s Islam is a bit on the peculiar side. Mali and Niger are perhaps somewhat more orthodox.) Yet when pundits start nattering on about democracy and Islam — gosh, are they compatible? Well, that’s a head-scratcher! — none of these countries get mentioned.

I’d add that while Senegalese democracy has flaws, they seem to be “poor country in Africa” problems rather than problems of Islam. Senegal is no worse off than, and in many respects superior to, its non-Islamic neighbors in the region.

— One other thing. Senegalese society is pretty liberal and tolerant. In terms of gender relations, headscarves are rare, veils are unknown, men and women mingle freely. (And the beaches are all bikinis. On and on for hundreds of meters. Um, not that I was paying close attention.) The Christian minorities, between five and ten percent of the country, get along fine with the Islamic majority; the first President was Catholic, as have been any number of prominent politicians since. Nobody uses religion as a call to arms.

It’s not clear who should get credit for this pleasant state of affairs. Pre-colonial West African society was a strange mix of ferocity and tolerance. (It was full of “Jihad states”, but Islamic practice on the ground seems to have been pretty relaxed.) The French get points for not doing the divide-and-rule thing, setting one ethnic or religious group above others; the anti-colonial struggle got quite sharp sometimes, but tended to be about class, not race or religion. And the first generation of post-colonial leaders did some things right. In particular, Papa Senghor — Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first President — has earned the praise of history and the gratitude of the nation. By the standards of 1960s Africa, Senghor ruled lightly — he abolished the legislature but then allowed it back a few years later — and with an unusually broad mind. And then after twenty years in office, he voluntarily stepped down and surrendered power. (The only other example of that I can think of, in forty-some post-colonial African countries, is Nyerere in Tanzania. If anyone else knows another, chime in.) Some Senegalese speak of a “social contract” to keep peace among the different ethnic and religious groups; whatever it is, it seems to be working.

So, good on Senegal, and fingers crossed that they can keep it up. And the next time the subject of Islamic democracy comes up, we can play with a few more data points.

18 thoughts on “Senegal: Islam, democracy, sexy

  1. Much of the American hand-wringing you mention confuses Islam with Arab. Outside the Middle East and Maghreb, there are plenty of examples of majority Muslim countries with democracies that are vibrant for their level of economic development. In addition to the African countries you mention: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria (sort-of), Malaysia, Kosovo.

    IF theories relating democracy to culture can do any analytic heavy lifting, the negative correlation is clearly with the Arab world, not the Muslim world.

  2. Well, Kosovo’s still not recognized by 2/3 of the world, Malaysia’s democratic credentials are a little shaky, and Bosnia… well, Bosnia’s pretty strange.

    But otherwise, sure.

    Doug M.

  3. …just had to unapprove a comment. Alas! There are things in the world that have nothing to do with Israel. Hard to believe, but there it is.

    The recent excitement seems to be stirring up the trolls. Play nice, please, people; it’s a moderated forum.

    Doug M.

  4. Lebanon certainly qualifies as a Muslim (and Arab) majority country with a functioning democracy.

    Bosnia at last count does not actually have a Muslim majority.

  5. The whole Islam thing has been so obnoxiously and criminally overplayed by certain Western commentators.. And they continue to do so, Christopher Caldwell gave a lecture peddling his book, the latest and most ‘respectable’ version of the Eurabia thesis.

    He actually prefaced his comments by saying he would not talk about social issues (racism/marginalization) at all frame the Islam/immigration ‘problem’ entirely as one of cultural differences. Essentialism and Orientalism FTW!!

  6. @Ombrageux, Caldwell is one of those pseudopundits who’s so consistently wrong that it really is a mystery why anyone gives him a forum.

    There does seem to be a very strong inertia effect here — once you’ve been published a few times in the Atlantic and the New York Times, you need to be absolutely barking mad before you’ll start losing credibility.

    Doug M.

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  8. Thanks for bringing this up. I knew that the “Islam = incompatible with democracy” point was idiotic (Indonesia and Bangladesh come to mind), but it’s always good to have a re-affirmation of that from the African front.

  9. Obviously, as a Finn, I find absolutely no contradiction between a functioning democracy and a president who rules over twenty years.

    Likewise, legislative control of the press, media monopoly and shady election funding? Par for the course in the democracy that I live in.

    Conclusion: democracy-wise, Finland and Senegal are probably roughly on the same level, but the difference is that in West Africa, democracy and constitutional rule are clearly moving progressively forward, whereas in Fennoscandia, they’re suffering from serious setbacks.

    (You know, I _should_ have taken French as the voluntary C-level language in the secondary school, instead of German. I bet that Senegal is never going to pass anything resembling Lex Nokia!)


    J. J.

  10. “The only other example of that I can think of, in forty-some post-colonial African countries, is Nyerere in Tanzania. If anyone else knows another, chime in.)”

    It’s a cliche, but: Botswana. It’s not the Home Counties but it’s certainly the longest-lasting democracy in Africa.

  11. Although, admittedly, Khama ruled Botswana until his death, but consistently submitted himself to elections considered free and fair, and his successor peacefully stepped down.

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  13. For this American, living in Senegal was indeed a profound education in the existence of a tolerant, even liberal, democracy that happens to be majority Muslim. I just posted a remembrance of this experience on my blog.

  14. I’m a little confused here. Sir, what does wearing a headscarf or veil have to do with a society being intolerant and non-liberal? Being half-naked is a sign of a….. tolerant society? A liberal society? I don’t think you should have included this in your note, it doesn’t do justice to this excellent piece.

  15. @Abbas I’m surprised you’re not aware of one of the biggest criticisms of Islamic countries…the treatment of women especially in regards to the head coverings they are “forced” to wear. The lack of headscarves is an indication that Senegalese law does not require women to cover their heads or that socially speaking women feel comfortable enough to not wear them if they wish. For an Islamic country this would be considered “liberal”.

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