Senegal under attack from Saudi-Iranian proxy war

Senegal under attack from Saudi-Iranian proxy war

Senegal's traditional political and religious moderation, tolerance and plurality is increasingly under threat from Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the two rivals export their proxy war to West Africa.

Just the Basics

  • Senegal's relationship with the country's Sufi brotherhoods have helped create a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy

  • Saudi Arabia and Iran are exporting their versions of Islam to Senegal, causing instability

  • Senegal is increasingly being drawn into foreign conflicts in the Middle East

Another school day begins bright and early for students at a branch campus of Al-Mustafa University. As the young learners file into their respective classrooms they are greeted by two familiar faces: those of their instructors as well as the omnipresent visage of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. On the curriculum today are Farsi lessons, Shiite ideology, Islamic science, and Iranian culture and history. As the day winds to a close and the students meander their way out of class, the nature of their conversation changes. As they joke and gossip with each other, its is not Farsi, Kurdish or other Turkic tongues that meet the ears of passers-by, but rather Wolof and French.

This branch of Al-Mustafa University is not in Qom or Tehran, but Dakar - the capital of the west African nation of Senegal. The bizarre presence of such an idiosyncratic institution is complemented by another just down the road. Here another portrait - that of the Saudi monarch - takes Khamenei’s place. Two miles from Al-Mustafa, the Islamic Preaching Association for Youth (APIJ) exhorts its pupils to study as well, as instructors disparage the other institution down the road. The APIJ is sustained by the largesse of Gulf countries, and runs some 200 mosques across Senegal.

This is no mere school rivalry, rather a deadly serious battle for the souls of the faithful. “The Salafists came to Africa to destroy [...] Islam,” warns Al-Mustafa director, Abbas Motaghedi. Similar pronouncements echo from down the street: “We cannot accept the Iranian influence in Senegal, and we will do everything to fight it,” proclaims APIJ sheikh, Ibrahima Niang. “We need to show the world that Shiism is wrong.”

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been a defining feature of Mid-East geo-politics for decades. No longer content to battle each other close to home, Riyadh and Tehran are exporting their ideological struggle to West Africa. While states like Nigeria and Mali face existing threats from local groups such as Boko Haram, Senegal has until now managed to avoid the kind of violence that is besetting many countries in the region.

Senegal’s unique religious-political composition and history of moderation makes any erosion of tolerance in the country doubly worrying. Until now, Senegal has managed to establish a reputation for itself as a pluralistic, Muslim-majority democratic state. By exporting their respective brands of Islam to the African nation, Saudi Arabia and Iran are undermining one of the few examples of a responsible state in the Islamic world.

Sufism in Senegal fosters culture of moderation

To casual observers the nature of the Iran-Saudi theological rivalry paints a picture of two monolithic sects - Sunni and Shia Islam - battling for control of the Islamic world. The fact that both sides are characterized by a plethora of sub-sects and canonical disputes is often overlooked. This fact is of particular importance in the case of Senegal as the majority of its population subscribes to the Sufi brand of Islam. Sufism is (primarily) a sub-branch of Sunni Islam, one that is deeply rooted in mysticism and aesthetics.

With a focus on inner contemplation, and a personal, transcendental connection with God, Sufism stands on the margins of the wider Sunni-Shia rivalry. Consequently, Sufism has had a moderating influence on Senegal’s religious community; with the country being able to avoid the bugbears of radicalization and Islamism which have destabilized neighbouring countries.

96 percent of Senegalese are Muslims, 90 percent of whom are affiliated with one of the country’s four Sufi (Maraboutic) brotherhoods. These brotherhoods enjoy a unique standing in Senegalese society, and are important civil society, economic and religious actors within the country. As Senegal’s democratic credentials have had a chequered past, these brotherhoods enjoy greater respect and deference among the general population than the country’s formal political institutions and leaders.


A popular sentiment among Senegalese is that “it is, in fact, the state that drives young people towards radicalization [rather than the religious brotherhoods] as its representatives engage in corrupt practices and fail to take effective action to reduce unemployment and poverty.”

With 60 percent of Senegal’s population under twenty, the country’s demographics have the potential to be fertile ground for Islamists, as anger at the status quo and a lack of social mobility drives youth into the arms of radicals. Interestingly, despite this demographic time bomb, Senegal has managed to stave off the kind of explosion in violence and radicalization that affect states with similar population dynamics. The key to this difference appears to be the unique role of the Sufi brotherhoods.

Despite the prominent role the brotherhoods play in Senegalese life, the state maintains a strict adherence to the separation of church and state, with explicit proscriptions against religiously aligned political parties or electioneering. Consequently, the brotherhoods have remained (at least formally) separate from the political process, restricting themselves to endorsing candidates and urging their client networks to vote along certain lines. Each headed by a caliph-general, the brotherhoods maintain a hierarchy of local officials and disciples, and are consulted on a range of issues, both sacred and mundane.

With the government’s religious neutrality a holdover from French colonial rule, Senegalese politics continues to pay deference to the power of the brotherhoods and their importance in ensuring social stability. While some presidential candidates have campaigned on promises to re-balance the relationship between the state and the brotherhoods, upon election such promises have not been followed through on. Whereas the political process continues to respect the checks on religious influence, the importance of the brotherhoods cannot be denied.


For instance, during his tenure President Abdoulaye Wade (2000-2012) paid due deference to the brotherhoods, appearing in traditional garb and making public statements in support of the brotherhoods including: exempting them from taxes, allowing them to purchase land at reduced prices, and providing their leaders with diplomatic passports. While his successor - Macky Sall - pledged to re-balance this relationship, once in power he has continued the government’s deferential stance, including using state funds to renovate religious buildings.

Speaking in June 2017, Sall stated that “the state cannot function without religion,” going on to publicly kneel before the head (as of December 2017) of the Mouride brotherhood - El Mokthar Mbacke. Mbacke is widely considered to be the most influential person in the country, and his image is widely distributed by state media.

Symbiotic relationship between state and brotherhoods defines Senegal

The existence of this parallel power structure in Senegal would initially appear as a threat to the country’s formal political institutions, yet the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the Senegalese state and the brotherhoods has enabled the country to weather the storms which increasingly buffet the region. University of Florida political science dean, Leonardo Villalon has argued that the key to Senegalese exceptionalism is the mutually reinforcing relationship between the brotherhoods and the states.

The staying power of this partnership has been the thread of consistency from the colonial era to the present day. This relationship emerged following the defeat of violent uprisings led by local clerics against French rule. The brotherhoods - while initially emerging as anti-colonial groups in the late 19th century - to one degree or another opted instead to work with the colonial administration in order to promote security and growth.

This cooperative attitude continued post-independence, in large part due to the ability of the brotherhoods to adapt to upswings in reformist sentiment and thus diffuse potential threats to the status quo before they metastasize. The global Islamic revival in the 1980s affected many countries around the world, as reformist movements gained strength, in part due to the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979. During this time Senegal was experiencing both an increase in religious sentiment as a well as a period of political and economic instability, which could have easily plunged the country into chaos.

Where the brotherhoods are weak, as in eastern Senegal, is where the threat of radicalization is highest.
— Bakary Sambe, Timbuktu Institute director

The brotherhoods managed to successfully ride out this tumultuous time by co-opting various reformist ideas and demands, while retaining their moderate attitudes which had come to characterize Islam in Senegal. For instance, the Tijaniyyah brotherhood voiced its opposition to Pope John Paul II’s 1985 visit and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. By adopting these (and other stances) the brotherhoods were able to outmanoeuvre any emerging Islamist groups by creating a ‘big tent’ identity, allowing discussion on a range of topics and viewpoints.

"By incorporating some reformist rhetoric, the maraboutic system was largely successful in nullifying [the reformist] threat. But the reformist challenge has continued to the present, and has exacerbated tensions within maraboutic families as members position themselves differently with regard to reformist ideology," notes Alexander Thurston, assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Consequently, religious conservatives taking aim at the maraboutic system also represent a direct challenge to the stability of the Senegalese state. The brotherhoods act as an extension of state control (and vice versa), and it is important to note that “where the brotherhoods are weak, as in eastern Senegal, is where the threat of radicalization is highest,” according to Bakary Sambe, director of the Dakar-based Timbuktu Institute.


Senegal punches above its weight despite its small size | RELIEFWEB


The brotherhoods have recognized the threat reformist movements pose to their own interests, not to mention the stability of the Senegalese state. Consequently, all four have become members of the Islamic-African Forum for the Fight Against Terrorism, which was founded in March 2017. Since 2014, Senegal has also played host to the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa.

“Senegal is still considered the anchor of stability in West Africa. The government has expressed its commitment to the Sufi brotherhoods which are acting peacefully, thereby underscoring the strength of its bond with the traditionally influential brotherhoods in the country. The brotherhoods for their part have positioned themselves unequivocally and repeatedly against the use of violence in the name of Islam and acknowledged their responsibility in the fight against violent Islamist groupings."

Changes afoot in Senegalese media, politics

A new challenge (and opportunity) for the maraboutic system is Senegal’s changing media environment, notably the growing number of Islamic media personalities taking to the airwaves. The loosening of media restrictions has seen an increase in independent outlets, resulting in a rise in the number of ‘tele-imams’ pontificating on everything from dating to droughts and elections. Half of Senegal’s population is illiterate, so prominent ‘tele-imams’ can wield significant influence and shape opinions far from their local mosques.

“The spread of Muslim media is emblematic of the continuing liberalization of the media scene,” notes Mamadou Diouf, professor of African studies at Columbia University. “[For imams, media presence] provides an identity and a public weight. The media is today the space for competition for Muslim organizations.” Whereas diversifying voices in the media is a laudable trend, there are concerns that quantity may be trumping quality in Senegal’s media landscape. “Those on the radio are not the strongest, they are not the best” laments Bocar Daff, a Senegalese health ministry official. “They are kind of politician [sic].”


Senegal's Sufi brotherhoods have helped the country establish a moderate religious climate


Such politicization was on display during the 2017 election, which saw the highest number of marabouts (local religious leaders) on the electoral roles since Senegal’s independence in 1960. The 2017 election also saw the Party of Unity and Integration (PUR) secure fourth place. While not explicitly religious in nature, the party does openly advertise its support of the Moustarchidine movement which was founded in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Though a small force a present, the PUR is confident it will do well in 2019. Whether the party makes an impact in the upcoming election remains to be seen, but their emergence hints at the shifts occurring in Senegalese politics and society.

Senegal falling into proxy war trap

The incorporation of reformist elements by the maraboutic system, changing media and increased foreign religious activism is leading more people to question business as normal in Senegal. Prevailing lax attitudes towards inter-faith marriages, Ramadan fasting, polygamy and religious clothing have come under increasing pressure from conservatives in recent years. President Macky even proposed a ban on the burkha, arguing that it was not in keeping with Senegalese culture, a hint at the creeping influence of conservative Middle Eastern norms. Authorities note a growing number of Senegalese recruits to extremist organization such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: fifteen preachers have also been arrested across the country for promoting Islamist content.

Overseas proponents of Sunni and Shia orthodoxy are disdainful of the heterodox and moderate nature of Senegalese Islam: a popular saying claims that Senegal is “95 percent Muslim, five percent Christian and 100 percent animist.” The plethora of religious figures in the brotherhoods themselves engender ample overseas criticism as Islam (Shiism aside) does not in principle sanction a clergy or religious hierarchy. Similarly the widespread use of religious imagery and the veneration of local saints is seen as 'un-Islamic' by reformist groups.

Certain elements of Senegalese Islam would appear to make the country’s worshippers more amenable to Shiism, and Iran has begun to see some results from its efforts to encourage conversion. Yet these gains have been modest at best, with only 30,000 - 50,000 Shia’s (a large percentage of whom belong to the West African nation’s Lebanese minority) in a country of 15 million. Despite Tehran’s efforts, it is Saudi sponsored Salafist groups which are making more headway, as Senegal’s population is overwhelmingly Sunni, thus presenting Sunni reformists with less ecclesiastical hurdles to overcome.

Moreover, despite a history of delicately balancing ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Senegal’s attitude to Iran has soured in recent years. In 2010, Nigeria intercepted an Iranian arms shipment which was believed to be destined for Senegalese rebels in the southern Casamance (home to one of Africa’s longest running conflicts) region. In response, Senegal cut ties with Iran in 2011. While relations were mended on the sidelines of the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo in 2013, Senegal has continued to increasingly fall into Saudi Arabia’s orbit.

President Macky Sall, leader of Senegal since 2012 | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Observers point to the growing use of Arabic in Senegal as the number of Senegalese students attending Quranic schools funded by Gulf states as well as the government’s own Franco-Arabic state schools increases. There are concerns that this increased use of Arabic will hasten the adoption of Middle Eastern norms, both religious and secular. Specifically, “many observers believe that in a few years an Arabic speaking elite will hold the most important positions in politics, business and academia in Senegal.”

More immediate evidence of Senegal’s growing affinity with Saudi Arabia has been the African country’s tendency to follow Riyadh’s lead on international issues in recent years. In 2017, Senegal joined Saudi-led efforts to isolate Qatar, recalling its ambassador from the tiny Gulf state - although relations were restored three months later. Senegal is also the only non-Arab nation to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The conflict, widely seen as a proxy war between Iranian and Saudi backed factions, has seen Senegal provide 2,100 soldiers to the Saudi coalition.

Speaking on the decision to enter the conflict in Yemen, President Sall stated that “Saudi Arabia - well as a state - is also a symbol of Islam. Senegal's ties are strong with the kingdom because we are Muslims and that is why we have joined the Saudi-led coalition.” Critics of Sall in turn have argued that the government's real reason for going to Yemen was not one of religious solidarity, but rather because of promises of Saudi financial support. Said critics point to the fact that the Islamic Development Bank, over which Saudi Arabia has considerable influence has invested $200 billion in Senegal up to 2016. Furthermore, critics of Senegal’s involvement in Yemen argue that the government was swayed by Saudi investment in the African nation’s development program - Programme Senegal Emergent 2035.

The Bottom Line

Senegal has managed to establish itself as a prominent leader in the Islamic world, with the small West African nation punching above its weight in international matters. Senegal's global influence is in large part due its success in creating a moderate and tolerate polity in a region oft beset by radicalism and instability. Senegal's unique religious-political relationship - between the state and the country's influential Sufi brotherhoods - has enabled the country to weather cyclical upswings in reformist sentiment.

Question-template 2-0(1)-min.png

However, this symbiotic relationship is under threat as Senegal increasingly plays host to religious organizations and agitators backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. By exporting their ideological and geopolitical proxy war to West Africa, Tehran and Riyadh are undermining Senegal's traditionally moderate society. The influx of conservative schools, preachers and literature, combined with a changing media landscape is leading to a proliferation of voices competing for the attentions of the Senegalese people.

Criticisms of the heterodox nature of Islam in Senegal and the nature of the maraboutic system also constitute a threat to the nation's political stability, as the former's clout helps buoy the latter. Concerns about Iranian interference has seen Senegal pivot towards Saudi Arabia in recent years, entangling the African country in politically charged disputes from Qatar to Yemen.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.