Reportage. While Arabic is gaining ground over French, the Wahhabi-inspired movements aim at a key sector, once the exclusive domain of the powerful muride brotherhood: school education.

The lesson of Islam in Senegal

Political scientist and Arabist, professor at the University of Saint-Louis (Senegal’s second higher education institution, with 15,000 students), Bakary Sambe coordinates the Observatory of radicalism and religious conflicts in Africa (Orcra).

For years, he has been denouncing the threat of extremism looming on Islam in his country, traditionally linked to the mystical brotherhoods (Sufi), while recalling that they have been recognized, at the international level, for their spirit of tolerance and the robustness of the local democratic system.

Already in a speech in October 2008, this scholar traced the outline of a process that emerged as the Wahhabi-inspired movements, advocates of a strong de-secularization of society (the Muslim faith has a long history in Senegal and 90 percent of the citizens are followers). It has focused on a crucial issue: school education.

Sambe observes: “The non-compliance of the government’s educational policy to Islam is deplored by many associations and this pushes the most radical ones to deny any legitimacy” to the institutions in charge. Yet, Senegal is a nondenominational republic, where education is imparted in French, the official language. We’re hitting a sore subject ad some groups express disagreement for it: the French language is a colonial legacy and, therefore, is guilty of conveying foreign, maybe even hostile “Western” values to African culture.

The bottom line, however, is more complex: Francophone education is contrasted by faith-based groups – like the Organization for Islamic Action (OAI), al-Falah (or Movement for the culture and authentic Islamic education in Senegal) , the Association of Muslim students of Dakar (Aemud, linked to the Jamat Ibad al-Rahman network) – oppose the will to “Arabize” teaching, under the pretext of making it more suited to the mentality and demands of the population.

Now, arabic is not a native language (as opposed, for example to the widely spoken Wolof), but rather it constitutes the “sacred” language, the instrument par excellence through which the message of faith and prayer passes. Vindicating its widespread teaching means promoting a confessional speech. This is proven by the fact that, in the diverse national scene, the schools where Arabic is used always have a religious character. This aspect is worn with pride and the directors of the institutes point it out to the parents, to encourage them to enroll their children.

So we see how the school system as a whole is set up.

Senegal has about 15 million inhabitants and it boasts a schooling rate of 84 percent among children (with marginal differences between males and females); 40 percent of pupils complete secondary level education; while about 4 percent of high school graduates enroll in one of the five public universities (present in Dakar, Saint-Louis, Thiès, Ziguinchor and Bambey) or in one of the five private universities open in various regions.

But it must be highlighted that Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, the largest institution, built by the French in 1957, actually has around 100 thousand students enrolled, with a problematic ratio professor / student equal to 1/172 (According to Unesco, the ideal ratio is 1 / 30).

The programs are copied from the French model, but teachers in public schools have to face overcrowded classrooms from the elementary level up (even 90 students per class) and a chronic shortage of teaching aids. This is why urbanized middle class families prefer to enroll their children in equalized private institutions (some Catholic).

It should be pointed out that the introduction of Islam as a mandatory teaching subject, alongside notions of the Arabic language, is recent. It dates back to 2002, on the initiative of former President Abdoulaye Wade, who was supported in his rise to power by the murida marabouts. They are the leaders of one of the major Muslim brotherhoods, created at the end of the nineteenth century by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.

It should be noted that his younger son, Cheikh Mouhamadou Mourtada Mbacké, was the creator of the main network of private self-funded religious schools in the country. These schools are disseminated everywhere and they teach around 70,000 pupils, the poorest of whom attend for free.

Murida pilgrims at the entrance of the Great Mosque of Touba, Senegal (photo by Ben Curtis / AP)

Denominational education does not concern so much the public learning system, but the private sector, which intends to compete against education in French. This reality has a strong foothold in popular culture and is inspired by an ancient informal model: Koranic schools or Daara. These were created centuries ago, to allow the faithful to memorize the Koran in Arabic, from an early age, and learn the essential elements for the ritual practice. Some Daara have become high prestige centers, albeit strictly oriented to theological or related matters (for example, Arabic grammar).

Since the 1970s, the emergence of French as an official language and a working tool, and consequently of modernity and development, has marginalized the Koranic schools.

But the disillusion of the present, linked to an economy that does not provide opportunities for all, let alone young people who have completed their studies, has changed household strategies once again. This is pushing parents to go back to a kind of education that safeguards traditional values and preserves the morality of youth, despite diminishing their career opportunities.  Djim Dramé, a researcher at the Islamic studies laboratory of the Ifan at the University of Dakar, explained it to us.

He himself is the product of this trend: he studied in a very famous Daara  (located at Koki, it accommodates nearly 4000 students aged 4 to 17 and, among them, some from families that emigrated in Italy, who prefer to raise their children at home, in strict observance of Islam). Dramé earned a degree in Arabic at the University of Al Azhar in Egypt and a doctorate in education studies, upon his return to Senegal.

Under the pressure of a religious revival conceived in terms of identity, the government policy is to open spaces to the Arab-Muslim teaching, while avoiding hurting the susceptibility of both the Sufi and Wahhabi sectors. The latter are much more aggressive and enjoy material and doctrinal external support (from Saudi Arabia and UAE). Due to this, Ramatoulaye Diagne Mbengue tells us, a professor of philosophy at the University of Dakar and general inspector of education and training, in addition to the the French high school diploma, the Franco-Arab diploma was gradually added, and, since three years ago, the Arabic diploma is offered at denominational Medersas.

A risk for the opening of young minds in a critical sense?

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