An unholy but influential marriage between Islam and the West


Letter from Senegal: Potential visitors to Touba in central Senegal should be prepared for the fact the town has no hotels. Moreover, if you were among the casualties of the smoking ban, be aware that lighting up anywhere in Touba will land you a night in the cells and a hefty fine.

Ditto for those in search of a cold beer to relieve the effects of the 40-degree heat.

The reason for these interdictions is visible for miles across the dusty plane: an 87-metre, perennially unfinished marble monster of a mosque that houses the tomb of the grand marabout, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouridiya Muslim brotherhood.

This fraternity, numbering an estimated three million adherents or a third of the population, is the most prominent of Senegal's Muslim brotherhoods whose influence in this country arguably surpasses that of the government.

The marabouts - also known as caliphs - are considered to be vested with divine powers. Their popularity stems from often exaggerated accounts of their resistance to French rule in the 19th century.

At the close of the lunar year last month, more than a million Mourides made the annual Magal pilgrimage to Touba to mark the anniversary of Amadou Bamba's departure into French-imposed exile in 1895.

As a revenue-collecting exercise, the Magal is an undoubted success. The faithful queue for hours to leave money at the tomb of Amadou Bamba. Dreadlocked assistants who enforce the marabouts' laws circulate seeking donations to supplement their caliphs' multimillion-dollar fortune.

The marabouts' control of an estimated half of Senegal's vital peanut crop, which accounts for a quarter of export earnings, is the primary source of their wealth. It cannot hurt that their followers are required to work the marabouts' fields voluntarily in an exploitative practice reminiscent of feudal days.

The generosity of the people towards their caliphs is boundless. It is not uncommon for a community to provide gifts of luxury cars in the hope the marabout will favour them with his divine power.

Despite their agricultural base, the marabouts are no strangers to worldly commerce. The brotherhood boasts many of Senegal's most prominent businessmen and an international trading network operating between France, Senegal and increasingly the United States.

Controversially, Touba itself is notorious as a centre of trafficking in illicit goods from contraband mobile phones and petrol to weapons and drugs.

Meanwhile, the marabouts' law extends only to the limits of the holy city. The town of Mbacké, 10km to the south, functions as a satellite of vice where sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are readily available.

A Muslim solution to a Muslim problem, you might call it.

Piety within Touba itself was not universal during the Magal. Many a female head went uncovered and pickpocketing was rife, accompanied by the Islamic custom of retributive justice, requiring the gendarmes to protect apprehended thieves.

Jihad and McWorld were here reconciled: Coca-Cola and Western Union sponsored the pilgrimage. Sellers of bottled water had no qualms about capitalising on the increased demand resulting from an outbreak of cholera, which has since become a nationwide epidemic. Cleanliness was evidently far from godliness in Touba this year.

The educated elite is not immune to the hold of this Islamic twilight zone. President Abdoulaye Wade, a liberal French-educated lawyer, is nonetheless a faithful Mouride and he too made the trip to Touba this year to pay his respects to the caliph. It is unlikely that his pilgrimage was wholly disinterested; the caliph's endorsement of Wade was decisive in his victory in the 2000 presidential election which ended the Socialist Party's monopoly of power since independence. Furthermore, the government has always appreciated the stabilising influence of the Marabouts.

The dominance of Islam in Senegal - more than 90 per cent of the population is Muslim - has, with the exception of the recently resolved Casamance conflict, helped the country to avoid large-scale inter-ethnic strife.

Still, for a liberal democracy to be beholden to a religion whose reputation for tolerance is unimpressive cannot be an indefinitely stable relationship. As impoverished peanut farmers pelt the silk upholstered sittingroom of their marabout with coins, the tail might be wagging the dog.