Finding Kinship in Muslim Senegal

By Rabbi Arthur Schneier

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.
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It was a moment of mutual discovery.

There I was, an American rabbi in a business suit and yarmulke, standing in a tropical garden in the African nation of Senegal, shaking hands with a dozen-odd colorfully dressed imams and sheiks and wondering what they would say next. I was in Dakar, the capital, for meetings of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations High-Level Group, which was working to close the gap between the West and the Muslim world. The American ambassador, Janice Jacobs, had arranged a reception in my honor at her residence. When the first of the invitees, a youngish man in Western dress, was introduced to me as an Islamic leader who heads a political party dedicated to increasing the role of Islam in Senegalese political life, I braced myself. Reconciliation, I remembered, is an uphill struggle.

But Cheik Bamba Dieye addressed me warmly. “This is a very special day for us, the first time we have met a Jewish leader in Senegal,” he declared in a heartfelt tone. “This is a great opportunity to learn something about Judaism. It is important to explore our differences and accept them without resorting to violence.” Dieye, who is expected to run for president next year, explained that, if elected, he and his party will not impose Islamic law on Senegal or force women to adopt Islamic dress. Rather, he hopes to bring the moral voice of Islam to help wean young people from such social evils as drugs and sexual promiscuity. The major religious leaders in Senegal, he emphasized, are committed to preventing the importation of militant Islamism. Acts of violence against adherents of other religions, as propounded by the likes of Osama bin Laden, represent “a lack of respect for God,” he said.

Dieye was followed by a white-bearded imam, dressed in robes and leaning on a cane, named Thierno Racine Dia, who had journeyed from the provincial city of Mbouna for the reception. Gazing intensely into my eyes, he stated: “I am convinced that this meeting was arranged by God. All religions in our world share the same sky, and all prophets come from the same source. Building alliances across religious lines is a very important and worthy cause, and we are committed to working with you to achieve it.”

As president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, I have traveled the globe for 40 years in the pursuit of religious liberty and human rights. I have met and dialogued over the years with tolerant and erudite imams and sheiks in places like Sarajevo, Istanbul, Almaty and Tashkent. Until then, however, I had been unaware of the Sufi-influenced brand of moderate Islam that is the faith of Senegalese Muslims. The Senegalese clerics I met impressed me with their spontaneity, kindness and respect.

There was another bond between us, as well: the bond between an Austrian-born Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, and black Africans whose nation was the debarkation point for millions of slaves brutally shipped across the ocean to the New World. Senegal’s best-known symbol, Gorée Island, just offshore, has been turned into a museum of the Middle Passage and the slave trade. Standing in Dakar, knowing its place in history, I could not help but feel a deep kinship.

Responding to the imams’ greetings, I told them I believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians are all children of Abraham, and that even though there is no Jewish community in Senegal, I hoped to work with them “to help build a bond between Senegalese Muslims and Jewish communities. After all, in this world we are all interconnected.” I could have talked with them for hours, but the Sabbath was approaching and I had to return to the hotel with my wife, Elisabeth. I gave them a brief overview of the rituals of the Sabbath, explaining the candles that Elisabeth would be lighting in accordance with our tradition. My words appeared to fascinate them.

I had come to Dakar for a meeting of the High-level Group of the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations, created late last year by Secretary General Kofi Annan. Our mission is to draft recommendations to the secretary general on narrowing the gap between Islam and the West. Our group includes a former Senegalese prime minister, former foreign ministers from France and from Indonesia, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and a renowned American writer on religion, Karen Armstrong.

During our deliberations, I urged my colleagues to ensure that our final report be balanced in its treatment of Iran, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while acknowledging that failure to resolve these conflicts increases the burdens on Islamic-Western relations. I asked that the Alliance of Civilizations call for an international conference of education ministers from Islamic and Western nations, with the mission of rewriting textbooks to remove language that appeals to chauvinism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and ethnic or religious hatred. The group was receptive on both counts.

While in Dakar, I was invited to the presidential palace for a 50-minute meeting with President Abdoulaye Wade, an 80-year-old pro-Western moderate, to discuss ways to increase inter-religious dialogue, including that between Muslims and Jews. The president appeared ready to go further; as a leader of the African Union, he could play a constructive role in building bridges between Israel and the Arab world. We also discussed the war in Darfur, where Senegal maintains a military peacekeeping contingent. Before meeting with the president, I spent two hours with Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, discussing a wide variety of issues.

The reception given to me, an American rabbi, left me with a strong sense that Senegal could play a significant role in building bridges between Islam and the West on one hand, and between Israel and the Arab world on the other. This is a Muslim country that has something to teach about tolerance; while 95% Muslim, it honors a Catholic, Léopold Sédar Senghor, as its founding father — and has elected him president five times.

Senegalese Islam is dominated by Sufi religious brotherhoods that began in the countryside but now function in Dakar and other cities, providing a network of social services that has been vital in preventing Senegal from dissolving into religious or tribal strife like so many other African nations. The Israeli ambassador, Daniel Pinhasi, is well respected and has high visibility in the capital — though Senegal does not maintain an ambassador in Israel, contrary to diplomatic reciprocity.

Above all, Senegal is a nation that symbolizes humanity’s ability to transcend the worst of inhumanity. Gorée Island, a mere 15-minute boat ride from the frenetic pace of Dakar, is today a tranquil island of white sand beaches. It was not always so. Its centerpiece is Slave House — constructed, ironically, in 1776 — with its notorious door of no return, through which slaves passed onto the ships bound for America. As I crouched in a tiny punishment cell that was hewn from stone, the same cell into which Nelson Mandela had climbed during his visit a decade ago, I felt a rush of searing memories. I was taken back to the final months of 1944, when I miraculously escaped deportation from Budapest to Auschwitz but saw many members of my family shipped to the crematorium. Gorée Island reminded me of the Nazi selection methods and of humankind’s enormous capacity for evil.

Yet modern-day Senegal comes across as a hopeful place. It is an open and tolerant African society that, despite poverty and a multitude of other problems, holds regular democratic elections. I left Dakar with the conviction that the United States, Europe and world Jewry have a considerable stake in the flourishing of the Senegalese model of tolerance and coexistence.

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