By Jack Montgomerie
April 27 2016
The Brussels bombings put Islam in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
As I sat on the steps of the Belgian capital’s old stock exchange hours after the attacks, one of the first medics treating the wounded at the Maalbeek metro station following the attacks told me he hoped, above all, the attack by Islamic State fighters would not contribute to a climate of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West.
In the United States of America, Republican Party presidential nomination frontrunner Donald Trump called in December for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, later claiming only he could resolve the issues which led to a bombing by Taliban-aligned group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar on March 27.
Meanwhile in Europe, the minority Alternative fur Deutschland party has proposed a ban on minarets and burqas, with several party figures suggesting Islam is incompatible with Germany’s constitution and claiming it is intellectually associated with a takeover of the state.
Leaving aside the human rights questions such statements raise, it is worth asking if the influence of Islam in public life is necessarily as nefarious as some Western politicians suggest.
The experience of Senegal suggests otherwise.
Sitting in the heat of a sandy courtyard in its capital Dakar, German-born anthropologist Dr Tobias Kuhn says the presence of powerful Islamic brotherhoods in the country has had a moderating influence on the country’s politics.
During a 2013 visit, US President Barack Obama called the country of 12 million, more than 90 per cent of whom are Muslim, “one of the most stable democracies in Africa”.
Senegal began its post-colonial period as a secular, democratic and social country, its constitution proclaims, and if the bustling bars and political demonstrations of downtown Dakar are anything to go by, the rights it guarantees are well enjoyed.
The Government even had a towering statue of a scantily-clad family built in the seaside suburb of Ouakam by the godless Communists of North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects Company in the late 2000s to celebrate “The African Renaissance”.
Kuhn says an endorsement from the caliph of the Mouride brotherhood helped Wade to victory, and Islamic leaders’ longstanding relationship with French colonial administrators has helped to limit abuses of state power for decades.
“The state could not simply impose its interests, because there were already social actors with a certain amount of power.”
Kuhn likens the brotherhoods’ role to that played by trade unions and other civil society actors in Western countries.
However, few unions could claim to have the authority of the Mouride brotherhood’s grand caliph in the inland city of Touba.
After riding for three hours in an ageing Peugeot station wagon through increasingly sparse villages, Touba’s wide boulevards are a surprise, but necessary to accommodate the approximately two million visitors it receives yearly for the aifGrand Magalaif, the anniversary of the exile of the brotherhood’s founder, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, in 1895.
Since that time, the former village has blossomed into Senegal’s second biggest city, with most of its public services run by its religious administrators and one of Africa’s largest mosques at its centre.
Although the city-wide ban on alcohol, music and football gives Touba an eerie calm, this Islamic state-within-a-state could scarcely seem further from the horrors perpetrated in Europe barely a week later.
Indeed, just days before the attacks, the brotherhood’s own tertiary institutions held a conference to figure out what was going on elsewhere and what was contributing to religious terrorism in the Islamic world.