As I depart from Senegal, a more important passing has taken place within the Mouride Sufi brotherhood. Serigne Mouhamadou Lamine Bara Mbacké, Khalife general of the Mourides, died last Thursday, and has been succeeded by Serigne Cheikh Maty Lèye Mbacké, now the seventh Mouride Khalife. For a student of religion and politics, the post-mortem patterns of partisan condolence have provided yet more evidence of the important place of the Mourides in Senegalese society.
A bit more background on the Mourides and the structure of religion in Senegalese politics helps clarify the importance of these events. More than 9 of 10 Senegalese are Muslims, and Islamic life in Senegal is largely organized around Sufi confréries. Of these brotherhoods, the Tidjans are the most numerous, but because of internal divisions of the Tidjans, the Mourides have exercised increasing public influence in recent years. President Wade has made his Mouride discipleship a matter of public knowledge, and has come under criticism from some quarters for “Mouridization” of the state. The Mourides also have substantial economic clout, diversifying from their original agricultural base to ownership of transportation, manufacturing, and retail enterprises. The current Mouride leadership is made up of the third generation so to speak, the petit-fils of founding Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, and maintaining brotherhood unity may become more difficult as time passes.
As I mentioned in my first post, the Mourides are already internally diverse in their engagement with the political process. Some younger marabouts, like Serigne Moudou Kara Mbacké, are explicitly involved in partisan politics. Early reports on the new Khalife indicate that he has a less developed political profile, and is more dedicated to the mysticism and agricultural pursuits that have historically rooted the Mouride community. One prominent newspaper has speculated that the new Khalife may “redessiner l’axe de la collaboration” (redesign the axis of collaboration) between the Mourides and the presidency, although time will tell on this count. With presidential elections fast approaching in 2012, that time may be fairly short.
While there may be the chance for some fundamental redesign in the axes of state-brotherhood relations, or Senegalese secularism more generally, my overall impression was of secular institutions that evolved within bounds heavily influenced by historical patterns. This is surely due in part to material interests. The major brotherhoods (as well as the Catholic community) have been fairly well-served by their collaboration with the laic state, with general social stability for minorities and material benefits for the brotherhoods. But a simple material story misses the explanations of normative stability that I heard repeatedly in formal interviews and casual conversations. These emphasized the unique nature of religion in Senegal, of Senegalese Islam in particular, its willingness to respect the other, and its desire to maintain its distance from the central state. Making sense of the new Khalife and his eventual successor will require paying close attention to this uniquely laic legacy.