A former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a Muslim-dominated country where a Christian minority is well respected and has lived peacefully with the Muslim majority for ages. What has made Senegal so successful in maintaining interfaith peace and avoiding the religious tensions that plague other countries? A group of professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison traveled to Senegal last year to look for answers. In the next several weeks, you will read a series of their interviews from the trip. As an introductory overview, anthropology professor Larry Nesper, talked with me recently. You can watch our full conversation by clicking on the video below.
Prof. Nesper noticed that the Senegalese take pride in the good and stable relations between Muslims and Christians in their country. Several reasons may explain the interfaith peace there. One is the Senegalese idea of Teranga, “a conception of their own hospitality they feel that they need to live up to, which includes being good to the other,” Nesper explained. It’s common to see Muslims invite Christians to feasts on Muslim events, and Christians invite Muslims to Christian holiday celebrations.
A second reason is the familiarity that Senegal’s upper and middle classes have with Christianity. The first president of Senegal was a Catholic, and every head of state since him has had a Catholic wife, said Nesper, “So at the very top of society, we have interfaith families.” At the middle-class level, many Muslim families send their children to Catholic schools “which means that the educated part of that country is on rather familiar terms with Christianity by virtue of their early schooling.”
A third reason is the small number of Christians in the country. Representing less than five percent of the Senegalese population, the Christian minority is not perceived as a great threat to the well-being of the Muslim majority.
A final possible reason has to do with religious leaders. One of the Catholic leaders Nesper spoke to is a priest who grew up as a Muslim and converted to Catholicism when he was 15 or 16 years old. “He sees himself as a person who really understands both because, in a certain way, he’s both Christian and Muslim,” said Nesper. “He said that he took whatever opportunities he could to speak with the Muslim religious leaders in the community about issues of mutual concern.” Senegalese practice Sufi, a mystical branch of Islam, which emphasizes the importance of religious leaders. As a result, Muslim religious leaders play a critical role in political affairs, both at the local as well as the national level.
What do you think of Senegal’s model for interfaith peace? Is it a special case or can some parts of it be replicated in other countries? What else can be done to increase mutual understanding of Muslims and Christians? We welcome your comments.