Senegal shows tolerant face of Islam

Dakar, Senegal - Maria Victoria Correa is a Catholic but she keeps a prayer mat in her house for Muslim visitors, one of the everyday kindnesses which underpin Senegal's religious tolerance.

At a time when cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad have triggered violent protests in several Muslim countries, the respect between faiths in Senegal remains unshaken.

While the overwhelming majority of its people are Muslim, the West African country has made religious harmony a point of pride. Many families, like Correa's, mix different religions.

Two of her sisters are Muslims, while one of her nephews -- whose father is Catholic and mother Muslim -- has chosen to follow the Islamic faith.

"There is always a prayer mat in my house for my Muslim nephew and other Muslims who visit us," said Correa, 52. "We all worship the same God, irrespective of being Muslim or Christian."

During the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, Correa cooks her nephew the "iftar" -- the first meal to end the day of fasting.

It is common for Muslims to invite Christian friends and neighbours to their homes to celebrate the main feast of Tabaski, commemorating Abraham's proof of his dedication to God.

Although 95 percent of its 11 million people are Muslim, Senegal has a secular constitution and the government celebrates both Christian and Muslim holidays. The authorities assist Muslim pilgrims who wish to make the annual journey to Mecca as well as Catholics travelling to the Vatican.

Other religions are not represented in significant numbers, aside from traditional animist beliefs.

Accustomed to the respect of Senegal's Muslim community, many Christians have been amongst the most outspoken critics of the controversial caricatures of the Prophet, one of which depicted him with a turban resembling a bomb.

"Every single religion needs total respect from others," said Catholic priest Jacques Seck, 72. "Islam deserves respect, so does the Prophet ... It's Western countries that challenge Islam".


Neighbouring West African nations have witnessed more acrimonious demonstrations against the cartoons, first published in Denmark and reprinted in more than twenty nations.

Muslims have complained bitterly at what they consider a religious insult under the guise of freedom of speech.

Tens of thousands of protesters packed the streets of Niger's capital Niamey this week, while in Nigeria's Muslim north members of the Kano state assembly burnt Danish flags in protest and called for a boycott of Danish goods.

By contrast, popular protests in Senegal have not gone beyond a campaign of SMS text messages. Muslim community leaders also presented a letter of complaint to the Danish consulate.

An football friendly between Denmark and Senegal to raise money for charity remains scheduled for next month.

Senegal's modern history has been marked by tolerance. Its first president was a Catholic, the poet and politician Leopold Sedar Senghor, who ruled the former French colony for more than 20 years after independence.

Senegal's distinctive form of Islam is marked by Islamic brotherhoods and spiritual leaders known as marabouts, who are revered by disciples and organised in elaborate hierarchies. The leaders have traditionally preached respect for the rules of secular society.

"People here are tolerant not because they are Senegalese or African but because we have a secular society," said university professor Abdoulaye Cisse.


Like many mixed-religion couples in Senegal, Muslim Moustapha Ndoye and his wife Diatou Camara were married in a mosque and then a church.

"I believe in my wife's religion and she believes in mine. We are simply on two different paths that both lead to God," said Ndoye, 72. "We are universal people."

After 35 years of marriage, Ndoye and his wife have grown accustomed to one another's faith. Their Dakar home is adorned with pictures of Jesus Christ and of local Muslim leaders.

"The difference of religion has never been a problem for us," said Camara, 65.

This peaceful co-existence runs through Senegalese society. The majority of children attending Catholic schools are Muslims, as many Islamic families recognise educational standards are higher there.

In the city of Ziguinchor, in the southern region of Casamance which is home to many of Senegal's Christians, Muslims and Christians are buried in the same cemetery.

President Abdoulaye Wade has volunteered to host an international summit on Muslim-Christian cooperation.

"Between Muslim and Christians the only thing that should prevail is peace," he said.