Editor's note: Over the next few weeks Maydan will publish articles presented at the Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives conference held at George Mason University in April 2016. We hope this series will help the broader public to develop a healthier engagement with the concept of sectarianism, an often misunderstood phenomenon.
Whereas media and policy circles have (over?)emphasized growing sectarianism in the Middle East, this essay describes the absence of sectarianism in Senegal. Ussama Makdisi defines sectarianism as “a process through which a kind of religious identity is politicized, even secularized, as part of an obvious struggle for power.” Unlike in Lebanon, a major case study for sectarianism, the Lebanese diaspora in Senegal adapted over time to unite as an ethnic group, Muslim and Christian alike. Senegal, a Maliki Sufi majoritarian country (ninety-four percent) with a secular state, has also seen the emergence of an indigenous African Shi‘i community. Senegal offers a climate for religious pluralism and tolerance toward religious minorities. In this way, Senegal provides a very different context than Nigeria, often the solitary African case study in collections on global Islam.
“Senegal offers a climate for religious pluralism and tolerance toward religious minorities. In this way, Senegal provides a very different context than Nigeria, often the solitary African case study in collections on global Islam.”As Paul Lubeck points out, Nigeria is nearly equally divided between Christianity and Islam, where no single identity group constitutes a numeric majority large enough to exercise hegemony over its rivals. Before generalizing about the “radical” nature of Islam – and terrorism – in Africa, analysts must also consider peaceful examples and question the impact of population demographics and religious makeup on sectarian proclivities.
Lebanese Shi‘ism in West Africa
Members of ethnic groups are often categorized according to which religious communities they belong and whether they speak the same languages and follow certain social practices. Lebanon, in contrast, is characterized by religious difference, which has been exploited throughout history by foreign powers. Political offices in Lebanon continue to be divided along religious lines as structured by the French-influenced constitution. Yet in Senegal, distance from the homeland and the altered and multi-layered dynamics of transnational religious politics enabled the ethnic network of Lebanese to develop over time to become expansive and secular enough to include Christians and Muslims. There was not a second wave of immigration to Senegal during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), as there was, for example, to Ivory Coast, which reinforced community tensions. This means that Lebanese in Senegal are primarily second, third, and now fourth generation migrants, many of whom have never been to Lebanon.
Migrants began to leave Lebanon in the nineteenth century seeking better economic opportunities abroad to improve their local social rank and later avoiding conscription in the Ottoman army. Lebanese migrated to all five continents, but first arrived in West Africa as early as the 1880s, and especially during the 1920s. According to the tale Lebanese of Senegal tell, their ancestors boarded ships in Marseilles, the transportation hub of the time, heading for the Americas, but never reached their destinations. The ships docked at Dakar, and the French colonial power convinced the Lebanese to stay in West Africa to work as intermediaries in the peanut trade between French in the cities and Senegalese peasants in the rural areas.
Today there are roughly 20,000 Lebanese in Senegal, ninety-five percent of whom are Shi‘i Muslim, with a small Christian population and an even smaller Sunni Muslim presence. Muslim and Christian demographics were more evenly balanced in the first generation of Lebanese in Senegal. This changed due to higher rates of Lebanese Muslim reproduction and the greater likelihood of Lebanese Christians remaining abroad after completing their university education. Although religious differentiation has remained strong in Lebanon, my interlocutors repeatedly emphasized: “there are no problems between Muslims and Christians in Senegal.” Over time, Lebanese religious differences began to be accommodated by the religious institutions in Dakar, which include a Maronite church (established in 1954), Shi‘i Islamic institute (founded in 1978), and Lebanese Sunni mosque (built a few years ago). Boundaries between “Muslim” and “Christian” melted away as interreligious marriages became more frequent, children of different religions studied together in Christian or Muslim schools, and Lebanese celebrated weddings, funerals, and even religious holidays together in mosques and churches. Lebanese in Senegal also lived through the Lebanese Civil War from a distance. Most Lebanese Muslims did not distinguish between Sunni and Shi‘i denominations in Senegal; only when they visited Lebanon were they confronted with religious differences.
Lebanese became embedded in Senegalese society and built political and economic ties – while these ties were not often publicized – and yet they were considered a community apart. It was during times of insecurity in Senegal, resulting from French colonial anti-Lebanese campaigns and Senegalese independence, that the Lebanese community sought to re-invent its identity. Empire politics and colonial rivalries caused continuous tensions between religion, ethnicity, race, and nationalism.
“It was during times of insecurity in Senegal, resulting from French colonial anti-Lebanese campaigns and Senegalese independence, that the Lebanese community sought to re-invent its identity. Empire politics and colonial rivalries caused continuous tensions between religion, ethnicity, race, and nationalism. “French administrators recruited Lebanese as economic intermediaries only to oppose their immigration later on. They did not give priority to Lebanese Maronites in Senegal as they had in Lebanon. Instead, French administrators treated Lebanese as a bloc of “Muslims” who threatened their interests in West Africa. They grew concerned over increasing numbers of Arab immigrants and responded with anti-Lebanese campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s. These included a policy of segregating Lebanese from Africans in order to prevent the spread of pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism, and anticolonial sentiments, restricting the use of Arabic in the colonies, and prohibiting Lebanese Muslims from praying in Senegalese mosques and attending local Qur’anic schools. Archival data illustrate that French perception and treatment of Lebanese as a threat resulted in Lebanese unity (regardless of sectarian divisions) against the French.
Senegal gained independence from France on 20 June 1960, leading to another transition for the Lebanese community. As an ethno-racial minority and a powerful business community, Lebanese encountered hostility from the Senegalese population. Becoming socially and politically invisible was key to Lebanese economic success as a vulnerable minority in Senegal. Clandestine patron–client relationships suited the Lebanese, whose economic actions depended on such collaboration, as well as Senegalese politicians, who benefited from Lebanese financial support but preferred not to publicize it. The Lebanese had sensed that change was under way well before independence and established good relations with Senegal’s nationalist parties. When Senegal became independent, some of these Lebanese were “rewarded” by receiving Senegalese citizenship and the community as a whole was assured of continued protection.
The story does not end here and is further described in my recent book. A Lebanese Shi‘i Shaykh, ‘Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, arrived in Dakar in 1969, almost a century after the establishment of the Lebanese community. Born and raised in Lebanon, and trained in the hawzas (Shi‘i seminaries) in Najaf, Iraq, Shaykh al-Zayn’s arrival came only shortly before the Lebanese Civil War and the Iranian Revolution. It was no coincidence that West Africa received its first Lebanese Islamic leader during a period of revitalization of Shi‘i religiosity and sectarian identity in Lebanon. Shaykh al-Zayn’s work led to the founding the Islamic Social Institution of Dakar in 1978. This caused an identity shift in the Lebanese community, with a “return” to patriotic Lebanese Shi‘i sentiments.
“It was no coincidence that West Africa received its first Lebanese Islamic leader during a period of revitalization of Shi‘i religiosity and sectarian identity in Lebanon. Shaykh al-Zayn’s work led to the founding the Islamic Social Institution of Dakar in 1978. This caused an identity shift in the Lebanese community, with a “return” to patriotic Lebanese Shi‘i sentiments.”Yet Shaykh al-Zayn also understood that inclusive, rather than exclusive, religious politics would be most successful in Senegal. He welcomed Sunni Muslims into his institution and joined Christians in affairs concerning the Lebanese community as a whole.
The 2006 Lebanon War, however, was a challenge for Lebanese unity in Senegal. For the first time Lebanese Shi‘a organized a protest in Dakar in support of Lebanon. On the one hand, Lebanese in Senegal were linked to a distinct Lebanese ethnic identity not fully detached from wider politics of sectarianism in Lebanon. On the other hand, this very identity enabled unity as a secular Lebanese ethnic group in order to claim what McGovern has termed “fictive autochthony” in Senegal, constructed from the community’s long history and economic, political, and cultural contributions. The 2006 war impinged on this delicate balance between religion and ethnicity, indicative of difficulties faced by Lebanese religious institutions in the diaspora in continuing to embrace coexistence and to distance themselves from sectarian politics in Lebanon.
Indigenous West African Shi‘ism
Early in his career in Senegal Shaykh al-Zayn did not have access to a local body of Lebanese Shi‘a formally educated in Islam who could assist him with his religious work. As the only Lebanese cleric in Senegal at that time, he drew on the expertise of Senegalese Muslims knowledgeable and influential in Islamic affairs and well connected with local Sufi leaders. Some of those who assisted Shaykh al-Zayn were among the first Senegalese to learn about Shi‘i Islam and “converted” while others never left Sunni Islam.
Shi‘i associations inspired by the Iranian revolution also began to form in Senegal in the 1980s. These can be understood as part of the larger movement for Islamic reform in West Africa. Origins of Sunni reform movements in Senegal can be traced to the 1930s — to the gradual concentration in urban areas of students who returned from studying abroad in Middle Eastern and North African religious centers. Referred to in French as Arabisants, these young men were fluent in Arabic, well versed in textual Islam, and often unable to succeed in Senegal’s modern Francophone sector. Many became Arabic teachers in Senegal’s secondary schools and formed Islamic associations.
Senegal is a country of religious tolerance and Senegalese Shi‘a are able to publicly express minority religious views and openly practice Shi‘i rituals. In the early years of the movement, leaders talked about taqiyya, dissimulation, where they would hide Shi‘i practices in certain contexts, for example if praying in a Sunni mosque to avoid conflict. However, Shi‘a are becoming better known and better publicized in Senegal today and taqiyya is no longer necessary.
Ibrahim Zakzaky, the leader of Nigeria’s Shi‘i movement, is often cited as the prototype for indigenous African Shi‘ism. Zakzaky was recently shot and detained, with dozens (if not hundreds, depending on reports) of his followers massacred by the Nigerian army. Zakzaky has been a vocal advocate for an Iranian-style revolution and has rejected the secular state. Zakzaky’s goals are very different from those of the Shi‘i movements in Senegal, whose leaders distance themselves from his “radicalism.” Senegalese Shi‘i goals are to spread Islamic education and ideas about development in the absence of state resources. They are proponents of religious coexistence and work within the laws of the land. Yet some scholars and policy makers are worried about the possibility of an increase in Islamic extremism in Senegal, not least because of the 2012 conflict in neighboring northern Mali and recent attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In examining what I have referred to as the absence of sectarianism among the Lebanese diaspora in Senegal, I have shown how Lebanese Muslims and Christians united as an ethnic group to confront discrimination faced as a community first from the French colonial power and later in independent Senegal. In the case of migrant communities, sectarianism, or the lack thereof, can be a function of changing economic and political situations in country of origin as well as receiving country. The sectarianism that divided the religious denominations in Lebanon, as well as the sectarian proclivities of the first generation of Lebanese migrants to Senegal, disappeared over time due to unique circumstances faced in the diaspora. In the case of Nigeria, Lubeck has argued the contrary; “as religious identities became increasingly politicized and nurtured by militant global networks, religion gradually displaced ethnicity as an identity marker.” Demographic makeup may encourage – or inhibit – sectarianism, where in Senegal the overwhelming Sufi majority precludes the political power of other minority religious groups, which nevertheless are free to coexist in Senegal. Demographics (in addition to internal and external factors) may also determine when religious groups come together as a united ethnicity, or when ethnicities supersede religion as the dominant form of identity. Conversion additionally complicates arguments of sectarianism’s primordialism. In the case of religious conversion, certain individuals and groups choose to belong to a different religious community, and sectarianism, if it exists, cannot therefore be a result of “centuries-long hatreds” but must develop historically and situationally. For Senegalese converts, Shi‘i Islam was a choice involving many years of study, knowledge of Arabic, access to religious texts, and sometimes, but not necessarily, international travel. It is thus important to examine the emergence of new as well as diasporic Shi‘i communities when debating sectarianism, and to include case studies where sectarianism is absent.
 Ussama Makdisi. “Moving Beyond Orientalist Fantasy, Sectarian Polemic, and Nationalist Denial,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40:559-560, 2008; 559.
 Mike McGovern. Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 67.
 For a sensationalist account of the massacres in Nigeria as a proxy for sectarianism in the Middle East see http://www.mintpressnews.com/saudi-arabia-takes-proxy-war-with-iran-to-nigeria-as-shias-are-brutalized/212629/.
 Paul M. Lubeck, “Nigeria: Mapping a Shari‘a Restorationist Movement,” in Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World, ed. Robert W. Hefner, 244-279 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 266.