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How Senegal keeps unique balance between religion and a secular state

A Senegalese nun prays during a service at the St. Peters church in Dakar, Senegal. EPA/Nic Bothma

On 1 May this year the principal of a catholic high school in Dakar sent out an email informing parents that students would only, as of next year, be allowed to wear

the usual uniform, with no headwear either for girls or boys. This sparked lively controversy over headscarves in Senegalese catholic schools. Some people openly voiced support and others condemnation for the stance taken by the sisters of Saint-Joseph de Cluny.

The controversy raised fundamental questions about the Senegalese model of secularism.

There’s no single model to secularism. At its core, however, is that religious and governmental institutions are separated. These institutions can be kept distinct in various ways, depending on the history of their relationship.

One of the reasons secularism is a sensitive issue is that some of its proponents, wishing to exclude religion from the public sphere, uphold it as a value, polarising public opinion. Yet secularism is not an ideological value. Rather it’s a political principle.

Yet some secularists want to enforce secularism with bans in the same way that Islamists practice Sharia law. Common to both of these prohibitionist attitudes is that they infringe our most basic human rights: the right to education for female students wearing hijabs in France or for female students – period – in Afghanistan.

This is because secularism has been made sacred. It has been elevated to the status of a value used to both allow and prohibit. But secularism is not sacred. It is a political choice.

Secularism and right to education

There are several different ways to understand secularism at school. This depends on the history of relations between school institutions (both public and private) and the State, which protects the fundamental, universal right to education. A right which, as we can see, has elicited little passionate debate.

But a school’s mission is to educate without discrimination. It has the duty to accept students, no matter how they choose to dress, as long as they show respect for human dignity.

In reality, secularism requires public and private schools funded by the State (and therefore by the people) to provide quality education to all students. This should also be in an equitable fashion, regardless of the religion they do, or do not, practice. This is not only a question of secularism, but also of democracy.

When secularism impedes freedom

This is why laïcité, the French concept of secularism, which has influenced many African countries, Senegal included, could not legally target hijabs.

French schools exclude students wearing ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in accordance with a 2004 law. Bikramjit Singh, a young high school student, was excluded from his school for refusing to remove his turban. But the UN Human Rights Committee found that the French government’s legitimate attachment to the principle of secularism was not limitless. It could not, therefore, justify excluding students on the basis of their faith – in other words, for wearing religious symbols.

The Human Rights Committee also called on the French government to revise its legislation against the full-face veil.

Several academic authorities and scientific reports by a team of researchers have shown that this ban has had real, lasting, stigmatising and detrimental effects on the independence, emancipation and integration of young Muslim women.

Senegalese secularism

Senegal is a secular State with a predominantly Muslim population, and a democratic regime with a remarkably strong civil society. This sets it apart from historically Christian countries, where the fight for secularism was linked with more democracy. It also differs from other Muslim countries where secularism was favoured by authoritarian regimes.

In Senegal, religious institutions and the State maintain an ambivalent relationship. This means secularism can be used as a political instrument for the social control of religion. It could be said that this is the exact opposite of secularism in Europe, where religion imposed its views and rules for centuries. It was gradually excluded from the arts, science, politics, law and, today, culture.

It is from this perspective that we can talk about the political power of religion and its institutionalisation. In Islamic countries, religion has been embodied only by various religious bodies in the service of political power. The exception is Shia clergy and Islamic brotherhoods.

In Senegal, religious orders grew independently from the State and never saw themselves as political institutions. Religious and political authorities have, therefore, benefited from each other, never seeking to replace one another.

Because of this socio-historical background, and aside from its relationship with France, Senegal is a religious country with a secular State. In contrast, the US has a different brand of secularism. It does not reject the social, cultural and even political influence of religion.

Senegalese secularism stands midway between the French and American models. Political secularism in Senegal includes religion in the governing of the country: religious and anti-religious lobbies try to influence the government, without ever threatening the nation’s ability to live together as a community.

Senegalese family law

The country’s family law was developed in consultation with religious guides. This in no way undermines its secularism in which political and religious institutions remain separate.

As long as religious figures contribute to developing the laws of the country as part of a democratic framework, reasonable secularism is not under threat. It would not be secular, however, to systematically entrust political decision-making to a particular religious order. But the country’s family law was established by the Senegalese legislature, which can also change it as it sees fit. And, every citizen, religious or not, is free to try and persuade it to do so.

Secularisation is not the loss of religious influence in society, but the loss of religious certainty. In other words, it was by no means certain that the Senegalese family law would align with values held by Muslims, Christians and Tiedos (historically, warriors from the ancient West-African kingdoms, with traditional beliefs), and with secularism.

If the reverse were true, secularism would become a religious value, like atheism and a-religiosity. Then both religious and secular fundamentalist values would inevitably clash and “religious wars” would be fought in the name of various gods – including Secularism.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord.

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