Senegal's Sufi Celebrities
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Senegal’s tele imams weigh in on everything from dating to drought to politics, using TV to mold the future of Islam and democracy in this peaceful West African state.
By Allyn Gaestel
Parting a sea of bystanders and inquiring fans, a man with the air of a rock star strode into the Sen TV studios, in Dakar, Senegal. Inside, he silenced his four cellphones and sat in front of the green screen, a massive Quran displayed prominently before him, and got ready to hold forth for his audience, out there in TV land.
It’s the age of the tele imam in Senegal — and Imam Iran Ndao is among a handful of celebrity Quranic teachers taking over the airwaves. The tele imams perch on talk-show couches and yell through headsets on raucous communal radio debates. They weigh in on everything from modern dating to elections and droughts. Brash, charismatic and omnipresent, Ndao and his brethren compete for souls and ears.
Independent media has given Imams a much broader — and more glamorous — platform.
Imams have long played a prominent role in Senegal’s political life, but the growth of independent media has given them a much broader — and more glamorous — platform. For now, the conversation has stayed in line with the historically peaceful and tolerant Sufi strain of Islam that dominates this 94 percent Muslim country.
Still, analysts puzzle over the trend and worry about the possibility of radical infiltrators, especially given the clashes with extremists in other parts of West Africa.
“International observers cannot avoid worrying about the links, real or imagined, between the fundamentalism present in neighboring countries, particularly Mali and Mauritania, without forgetting Senegal and the spike in interest in religion in the media,” says Mamadou Albert Sy, an author and spokesperson at Dakar’s University Cheikh Anta Diop.
Senegal has a reputation as a bulwark of stability, a status buoyed by peaceful elections in a region rife with coups. Recent years have seen democratic consolidation and a gradual loosening of media restrictions, providing tele imams a chance to reach far beyond the bounds of their masjids.
“The spread of Muslim media is emblematic of the continuing liberalization of the media scene,” explains Mamadou Diouf, an African Studies professor at Columbia University. For imams, media presence “provides an identity and a public weight,” he says. “The media is today the space of competition for Muslim organizations.”
International observers cannot avoid worrying about the links, real or imagined, between the fundamentalism present in neighboring countries.…
Open media enables broader evangelism. In the past, Imam Ndao says, religion spread person to person, often in remote villages — in other words, very slowly. “But since radio came, you can speak on the radio and reach 200 people who can learn from you, and with TV it’s more than 2,000 people,” he says. “Even outside the country, people can watch and learn about religion.”
Certainly the tele imams have reach. Some 210 miles southwest of Dakar, in the village of Mereto, Oustaz Sherif Ousmane Keita — an imam himself, though a provincial one — tunes in regularly. In his dusty courtyard, sheep munch hay next to three solar-powered satellite dishes, which connect Keita to 326 local and international channels. Keita draws on the tele imams’ broadcasts in issuing his own long-winded advice to his flock.
Some see an inverse relationship between the quantity and quality of Muslim pundits. “Those on the radio are not the strongest, they are not the best,” bemoans Bocar Daff, a health ministry official. “They are kind of politicians.”
Still, because of their political influence, Daff regularly partners with imams to promote public health policies like contraceptive use — and to avoid the chance they’ll inveigh against them.
For now the debate is mostly domestic, but many leaders aim to widen their reach. Imam Moussé Fall, young and Facebook-savvy, predicts: “Now it’s a national mission, but it will become international.”
In a country known for its fashion, music and cosmopolitan je ne sais quoi, Senegal’s public imams must be stylish. A brief introduction to some of them:
Imam Iran Ndao
Chauffeured in a massive black SUV to Dakar’s Sen TV studio, Ndao records a week’s worth of shows in one day. Between takes, he changes into a different embroidered boubou.
He’s a world away from his past of poverty and memorization. An orphan in the small cities of Kaolack and Tivaouane, Ndao grew up in Quranic schools, which are called daara in Wolof.
“I’m still in daara. When your father gives you to the daara, you can never leave it,” he says.
Verdict on oral sex: It’s OK in marriage, but it’s not ’nice.’
Now in the bright green studio, just off the beach in the packed, artistic neighborhood Medina, he expounds on wide-ranging topics du jour. One day he took questions from viewers and pontificated on oral sex. Verdict: It’s OK in marriage, but it’s not “nice.”
Imam Moussé Fall
The 30-year-old Fall is thin, with an excitable, boyish face that belies brash confidence: “We have a young population. When I speak, everyone listens,” he said.
He counsels young dakarois on his cell phone, posts opinionated missives on Facebook, and frequents radio and television debates. He takes pleasure in raucous theological arguments: “I see imams on television, radio, and I say, ‘These people don’t really understand.’
“There are two generations of imams, the archaic and the new generation,” says Fall. He sides squarely with the latter: “We must be modern,” he says. With almost 60 percent of Senegalese younger than 20, he has a wide audience. “We have the same language, the same generation, live in the same situation. And I have my religious expertise. I link religion and life.”
Oustaz Taib Socé
Socé squeezed in a brief interview at the Radio Futurs Medias station just before jetting to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. “I discuss the news and give a religious interpretation,” he says, in the hurried tone of someone with better things to do, his wide eyes darting.
Half of the Senegalese population is illiterate, and most who read and write do so in French, not Arabic. Quranic teachers are necessary, as they read, explain and interpret religious teachings, which is precisely what Socé says he does: “I translate what the Quran says, for much more comprehension.”
While most public imams ascribe to one of the powerful brotherhoods — Mouride, Tijaniyya, Qādiriyya or Layene — Socé is independent. “I respect all the brotherhoods, but I am just a Muslim,” he says. ”The people like that I am not in the brotherhoods; I am for everyone.”
Imam Ahmed Dame Ndiaye
Ndiaye disputes Socé’s authority: “He doesn’t understand the Quran,” says Ndiaye. “He’s not at the level to say what he says.”
What makes TV debates worth watching is the wide spectrum of perspectives — on the Quran, yes, but also on the worth of other scholars.
A regular guest on radio and television debates, Ndiaye often presents the most extreme point of view, turning up the animosity, and the volume, on political and theological debates.
Ndiaye whips out his iPad to reference PDFs of policy documents from Henry Kissinger and the CIA.
In the shady courtyard of the mosque where he preaches, he waxed passionately on the “imperialism” of international charities, especially the ones that promote contraceptive use, which is also a priority of the health ministry. “Family planning is a plot to limit the population of the third world,” says Ndiaye. “[T]hey want to destroy us … the third world and Muslims will never accept that.”
His argument flaring, Ndiaye whips out his iPad to reference PDFs of policy documents from Henry Kissinger and the CIA. He may be technologically advanced, but his conservative views are steeped in age-old tradition.
He doesn’t see himself as controversial, just right: “I’m not powerful; I have the truth.”
We’ll see how that goes over in next week’s show.
- Allyn Gaestel, OZY Author Contact Allyn Gaestel