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Senegal’s Democracy Put to the Test

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.