Senegal’s Koranic “scholars” face beatings: report

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Fali Ba, 10, a Talibe or Islamic student, holds a copy of the Koran at a Dara, or Koranic school, in Pikine on the outskirts of Senegal's capital Dakar, May 7, 2008/Finbarr O'Reilly

Barefoot children in tattered clothes scramble through the dusty, trash-strewn streets of Dakar, tapping on car windows and shadowing market-goers in the hopes of a few coins or a cup of rice.

The sight of young people begging is not uncommon in a country struggling with deep-rooted poverty, but in the West African state of Senegal there is a twist.

These children are students in the nation’s traditional Koranic school system being forced by teachers to panhandle on pain of severe beatings, according to an investigation by global advocacy group Human Rights Watch released on Thursday.

“There are at least 50,000 children just in urban residential daaras (Koranic schools) that are living in conditions akin to slavery,” said study author Matt Wells.

Muslims, Catholics rap Senegal prez over Stalinist-style tribute to Africa


African Renaissance monument under construction, 19 August 2009/Finbarr O'Reilly

Senegal has a reputation for harmony between its Muslim majority (about 90%) and Christian minority (about 6%). President Abdoulaye Wade ranks as a Muslim champion of dialogue with Christians and even with Jews. So it came as a surprise over the holiday period that the 83-year-old leader provoked separate protests by imams and Catholics, including the country’s cardinal. Even stranger, the dispute was sparked by a huge Stalinist-style statue that North Korean workers are constructing on a hill overlooking the capital Dakar. dakar wade

President Wade, 1 July 2009/Ismail Zetouny

Wade stirred up protests in recent months from imams who say the project smacks of idolatry and its celebration of a near-naked man and woman offends Muslim modesty. He compounded the problem by announcing that he, as the memorial’s designer, would personally take 35% of its expected tourism receipts. When the imams’ campaign spread with anti-memorial speeches in the mosques, Wade rejected their suggestion the statue was somehow pagan. “There are worse things that happen in churches,” he told a meeting of teachers on Dec. 28.  “They pray to Jesus in churches and he’s not a god. Everybody knows this, but nobody has ever said we have to knock down the churches. Nobody has ever objected or cared what the people do there.”

Imams and rabbis work for peace, even if debating it can get tense

There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others. (Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)

But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there. (Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)

At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.

Senegal Sufi leader conducts Muslim naming ritual by cellphone

Cheikh Bethio with some of his followersIt seemed incongruous for the marabout to answer his mobile phone while conducting prayers. The faithful were gathered on mats around his ornate deckchair and I was at his feet waiting to speak to him for our feature on Senegal’s Mouride Sufi brotherhood entitled “Fake Prada Fuels Senegal’s Muslim brotherhood. ” The scene illustrated how close together the ancient and the modern as well as the spiritual and the material sit for members of the brotherhood.

It was one of his talibe, or followers (the term in the local language Wolof comes from the same Arabic word “talib” — religious student — that has become notorious in a different context in Afghanistan). The caller asked the cheikh to perform a Muslim naming ritual for the latest addition to his family. Seated in the sandy compound of one of his many homes, Cheikh Bethio was happy to oblige right away. He asked the family to hold the phone to the baby’s forehead, right ear, left ear and genitals while he whispered its name and blew into the phone. The faithful at his feet bowed their heads and kept silent. They’re used to such interruptions – sometimes he even performs weddings this way.

A Mouride follower of Cheikh Bethio wearing his pictureMouridism, a Sufi Islamic movement based in Senegal’s holy city of Touba, preaches hard work as a means to paradise and the accumulation of wealth so as to build mosques, Koranic schools and help the poor. Its devotees have taken the lesson to heart and the result is a network of small businessmen and traders who combine religious fervor with a natural Senegalese ability to drive a hard bargain. Mourides run the majority of stalls in Senegal’s markets. They are the producers, promoters and retailers behind its thriving music industry, which has borne such stars as Youssou N’Dour and Cheikh Lo. They control its trucking and bus companies and own tens of thousands of hectares of its peanut plantations. Hip-hop superstar Akon and English premier league footballer El Hadji Diouf rank among their number.