Senegal: Conversation at Gaston Berger University

In January 2009, several UW-Madison professors visited Senegal, where a Muslim majority and a Christian minority peacefully coexist. You can watch an overview of this trip in part one of this series, and the professors’ conversation with a prominent Imam in part two. The group also stopped at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis where they talked to Senegalese friends about the country’s religious tolerance.

In the first video clip below, three Senegalese professors explain to the UW-Madison group several reasons for the peaceful relations between the country’s religions. First, there is the culture of Teranga or hospitality, a deeply engrained Senegalese value taught at home and in school, said Badara Sall, one of the Senegalese professors who teaches English at the university. When you encounter a person who doesn’t share your religious belief, added Khadidiatou Diallo, another English professor, you don’t see that person as an enemy, but as a brother who at least shares the same culture.

A second reason is the example set by prominent religious families such as that of Malick Sy and other religious leaders. They see no problem with mixing religions in one family or celebrating the other religion’s holidays. Many ordinary families, such as Prof. Sall’s mother’s family, have some members practicing Christianity and others Islam. If one parent is Christian and the other Muslim, Prof. Sall said, their children will just choose which religion to practice when they grow up. It’s very common to see Muslims celebrating Christmas or Christians slaughtering rams on Muslim holidays. Prof. Mamadou Ba told the group that almost all of his schooling was paid by a Bishop who extended his generosity to a poor Muslim boy.

A third reason for religious tolerance is the shared belief in God. Christians and Muslims believe in the same God, said Prof. Sall, “the same principle of honesty, justice, and tolerance.”

Even though Senegal enjoys and prides itself on interfaith harmony, Islamic fundamentalism has crept in and is spreading. In the second video clip below, the Senegalese professors shared their concerns. “In this campus we see some people wearing clothes like Al Qaeda do,” said Prof. Diallo. “They say we are not really real Muslims because we talk to Christians, we listen to music, and we watch movies.” Prof. Sall worried about the fundamentalists’ influence on children. The fundamentalists were everywhere now, he observed. “They organize parties and invite children and teenagers to talk to them.” However, both the Senegalese government and the people hesitate to speak out loud against the fundamentalists “because it’s a touchy issue.”

What do you think of Senegal’s model for religious tolerance? Will it work in your community? How should we balance religious tolerance and rejection of religious fundamentalism? We welcome your comments.

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