Senegal, a country whose population is 90% Muslim, is one of the Islamic world’s most peaceful and democratic countries. This tranquility has been helped by the elaborate “rituals of respect” that have developed between the secular state and the Sufi orders, and the excellent relations between the country’s Muslim majority and the Catholic minority at all levels of society.
The secular state and religious groups have cooperated on AIDS prevention – to the extent AIDS affects only about 1% of the population, compared to more than 20% in some African countries. The secular state, supported by feminist groups and some transnational non-governmental organizations, banned female genital mutilation in 1999, without triggering massive Muslim protests.
Mistakenly viewed by some as an example of French laicité, which might be characterized as “freedom of the state from religion,” Senegal, although once a French colony, has crafted a very different model of “equal respect and equal support for all religions.” In fact, secularism in Senegal resembles that in India more than anywhere else.
In Senegal, fundamentalist schools, as well as Iranian and Saudi Arabian aid in the education sector, find little space or demand. The Senegalese government spends about 40% of the state budget on education and provides free public schooling to almost 85% of all primary school age children. By contrast, Pakistan, spends just 8% and six million primary age children have no public schooling.
Furthermore, since 2003 state schools offer religious instruction (using authorized textbooks that are never Wahhabi in spirit), with the informal approval of secular and Sufi teachers alike. Parents are increasingly sending their sons, and now their daughters, to these tolerant, accredited, and democracy-compatible schools.
Some parents still elect to send their children to private, often Franco-Arabic, schools. However, the Senegalese pattern of state-religious relations allows the government to provide partial funding to such private religious schools. In return, the state inspects such schools regularly. The only schools the state does not supervise are Koran-based schools, which some parents use as a complement – but seldom a full substitute – for state education. But most of the traditional religious teachers in such schools practice Senegalese rituals of respect, and, in any case, view Saudi Arabian-style schools as alien competitors.
Yet, despite all these positive developments, Senegal’s unusual democracy is imperiled. The reasons have nothing to do with the rise of political Islam, but everything to with poor electoral practices by elected incumbents and international indifference.
The current president, Abdoulaye Wade, who is over 80 years old, is running for re-election on February 25. Wade has substantial international prestige, because he led the final phase of the country’s long democratic transition in 2000. But Wade postponed legislative elections, originally scheduled for June 2006, first to February 2007, and later, by presidential decree, to June 2007. Two weeks ago there were almost daily discussions about the possibility of the presidential elections being postponed indefinitely .
It now appears that there will be a presidential election, but will it be fair? A month before the election, only 64% of citizens who had registered had received their voting cards. On January 28, a peaceful but “unauthorized” demonstration by opposition parties was brutally repressed by the police and three presidential candidates were arrested for the day. None of this was shown on television.
In a country with little tradition of political violence, too many mysterious things are happening. An early strong critic of Wade, Talla Sylla, had his face beaten with a hammer. Abdou Latif Coulibaly, the author of two books critical of Wade, received a death threat, as did Alioune Tine, the leader of a main human rights organization, Raddho. So Senegal’s “rituals of respect” may not be holding.
The Bush administration, in bad need of a democratic Muslim ally, wants Wade to fill that bill, and seems to have decided, in the words of one high, but disappointed, US official, to give Wade a “pass.” Whereas the US is willing to spend $147 billion next year in the name of an implausible democracy in Iraq, it refuses to spend any imagination or money to shore up one of the most creative models of peace and democracy in the Islamic world. That is terrible for Senegal and Africa, as well as for America’s credibility.
The European Union says that it has been caught unawares by the situation and has not budgeted any funds for election observers to go to Senegal. France, the former colonial ruler – and still a influential force in the country – has been silent.
But Senegal’s democracy hangs in the balance. In the coming weeks, attention by the international press, by international election observers, and by supporters of tolerance around the world could make a critical difference.