Islamic Civil Unrest Part Deux: The Senegal Option?

Amidst the upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East, the West tries to proceed with caution. Waiting as the political dust settles with the desire to be on the right side of history. Not only for ethical reasons but for the sake of continued access to resources in oil rich Libya but also for Egypt’s stabilizing force in a volatile Middle East as well as Yemen’s help to stem the tide of terrorism. The infectious wave of social unrest in North Africa has elites in sub-Saharan Africa asking the question “are we next”? Uncertainty looms as to what will happen when old regimes fade away and new ones emerge. Will concessions be granted to mask the maintenance of the status quo? Or will these new emerging regimes adopt reforms dedicated to deep seeded change?

This is not the first time the Muslim world has experienced a domino effect of civil unrest tied to socio-economic and ideological struggle. Unfortunately, many Muslim countries managed the conflicts by neutralizing the opposition through the use of force. In 1979 the Iranian revolution opened the floodgates for Islamic revivalism throughout the region. “In 1980 with the ordered execution of the Iraqi Shiite revivalist leader, Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr, Saddam Hussein proceeded to ruthlessly suppress all religious opposition to his rule during the course of his decade long rule. Similarly, in 1982 President of Syria Hafez al-Assad deployed 12,000 troops in the city of Hama to suppress an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands were killed in the process. Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, and a host of other Muslim countries have also resorted to brute force to contain revivalism.” (1)

While these new upheavals are more about social and economic disparities rather than religion there seems to exist a shared notion within the West and echoed by some in the Muslim world that Islam is not compatible with modernity or a secular government. This perception is often reinforced due to the lack of understanding of the history and diversity that exists in Islam. Images recycled in the media of stateless sword wielding Muslims, highly publicized executions of hostages by Islamic extremists, Osama Bin Laden releasing his latest video tape as well as failed states such as Somalia or the strict code of Wahhabism which is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia, suffocates any consideration that Islam and democracy can coexist.

However, despite the heterogeneous composition of the Muslim world, Senegal has built up an institutional memory for managing and allowing a public space whereby both political Islam and a democratic government can coexist without one trying to neutralize the other. This relationship has produced a vibrant civil society, which has been able to vocalize dissent without fear of retribution. The socio-economic crisis of the late 1980’s and 1990’s also served as fertile ground for revivalism in Senegal. Inspired by the events in Iran, students and reformist challenged the Sufi brotherhoods, the state and the patron-client relationship that existed between them. With the dissident agitation reaching fever pitch and civil unrest unfurling, President Abdou Diouf’s regime decided to suppress the opposition by initiating a state of emergency and incarcerating the oppositional political leaders. These measures simply did more to fan the flames. Ultimately, President Diouf’s regime managed to avert further escalation of the conflict by entering into “A series of roundtable talks with opposition leaders, and though these negotiations were plagued with difficulties and disputes, they showed Diouf’s willingness to compromise. The revised electoral code that served for the 1993 elections was one of the outcomes of such negotiations, and though the new code provoked some problems it also symbolized progress toward democratization.” (2)

By providing the opposition a voice President Diouf successfully dulled the extremist edge, which eventually saw the absorption of some of the leaders into the Diouf’s government. Most notably was the current President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade. Senegal offers credence to the fact that Islam is not innately resistant to democratic order. This perhaps can be used by other Muslim countries as a framework to operate from for resolving conflict, or at a minimum for loosening the grip on the political sphere which can lead to real engagement with opposition and yield favourable results. For the moment as onlookers we can only hope that while the seeds of change blow across North Africa and the Middle East it will bear fruit for all and not just a few.


[1] Nasr, S.V.R. (1985). Democracy and Islamic Revivalism. Political Science Quarterly, 110 (2), 261-85

[2] Thurston, Alexander. (2009). Why is Militant Islam a Weak Phenomenon in Senegal?Africa Today, Vol. 46, No 3/4  pg. 7

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