Senegal, a Peaceful Islamic Democracy, Is Jarred by Fears of Militancy

Guédiawaye, Senegal — Raids for suspects in the Paris attacks flashed across the television at the Sow family house in this small village along Senegal’s coastline.

The news reports from France served as a backdrop to an international hunt for extremists that now, surprisingly, has reached the living room of Marieme Sow, thousands of miles away in a country long held up as a model of an Islamic democratic society.

Ms. Sow has been accused of helping support the activities of Boko Haram, the group that pledged loyalty to the Islamic State after unleashing years of violence in Nigeria and its neighboring countries.

She was part of a Senegalese sweep in recent weeks of people suspected of having close ties to Boko Haram or radical Islamist ideologies, including four imams and other suspects who were jailed on charges of advocating terrorism.

For years, even as Boko Haram and other radical Islamist groups in West Africa have seized territory and carried out suicide bombings, rapes and kidnappings, Senegal, where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, has remained free from violent extremism.

But recent events across the world, and now accusations of ties to Boko Haram in Senegal, have put the nation on the defensive.

President Macky Sall has spoken of a need to restrict personal freedoms, tighten borders and even ban women from wearing burqas, saying that in Senegal, there was no place for radical Muslims.

“We have a moderate and tolerant Islam,” said Mr. Sall, who is Muslim, at a recent gathering of security and antiterrorism experts.

In the capital, Dakar, where the call to prayer rings out five times a day from mosques, many Muslim women wear short skirts and dance with Muslim men at nightclubs until dawn. Alcohol flows at restaurants where on a recent evening in one fishermen’s bar a live band played Jimi Hendrix covers. Toy Santa Clauses are on sale at stores and markets.

Most Muslims in Senegal belong to one of the Sufi brotherhoods, which practice a mystic form of Islam that centers on a culture of work and nonviolence.

“The Paris attacks, that’s not the Islam we believe in,” a waiter at a boozy seaside restaurant offered, unsolicited.

This month, major cities emptied out as many Muslims made an annual pilgrimage to Touba, the capital city of the Mouride brotherhood, where hundreds of police officers were on hand to keep security tight. Mr. Sall visited too, reiterating a pledge to build a modern hospital and “continue work for the holy city.”

But even in a country that is known for a practice of spiritual, peaceful Islam — where accusations of human rights violations are infrequent, where corruption is relatively low, and where ethnic tensions have rarely escalated — the same societal forces are at work that have allowed extremism to flourish in other countries.

Chief among them is Senegal’s already high unemployment rate, which continues to rise, especially for the young adults who make up a fast-growing segment of the population. Its agricultural industry is suffering, prompting villagers to move to urban areas or emigrate to look for work.

The numbers of children enrolling in school is rising but many adults are barely educated. The poverty rate is declining but still many people, especially in rural areas, have barely enough money to feed their families.

“Senegal has avoided some of the radicalization that you’re seeing across the Sahel, but there are danger signals,” said Katherine Marshall, a former World Bank country director for the Sahel region of West Africa and an expert on Senegal.

Mr. Sall in recent weeks has seemed to be taking the warning signs more seriously.

He has proposed standardizing the curriculum in Islamic schools to ensure radical teachings are eliminated, saying the country should not “for political reasons tolerate a certain kind of discourse.”

Last month, Mr. Sall flew to Bamako, Mali, to offer his condolences to the nation after 19 people were killed in an attack by Islamist militants on the Radisson Blu hotel there. He spoke with Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, about a need to restrict personal freedoms to help crack down on potential extremism.

In a speech last month, Mr. Sall said his country should be courageous enough to ban burqas. “When we see new forms of veils appearing in our society we know this is neither in line with our culture or our society,” he said.

Some Senegalese imams are also worried about possibilities of radicalization. At the main mosque in Guédiawaye, three imams representing the local branch of the National Association of Imams recently sat under a shady tree discussing the state of youth and their fears for their future.

They complained about the breakdown of the traditional structure of multigenerational families living in one household. Youth in a nuclear family have less guidance from elders who can keep a watchful eye on their comings and goings, they said. Young people watch too much television, drink too much alcohol and smoke too much jamba, slang for marijuana.

“The fear I have is the Internet,” said one of the imams, Bala Cha, worried that young people would be radicalized through social media.

But he said that militant Islam was contrary to the Islam he has known throughout his life in Senegal.

“Islam is a religion of peace,” Imam Cha said. “The way people are brought up here, we can’t believe there is anything different.”

Imam Cha and much of the nation were surprised by the recent sweep of suspects accused of supporting radical groups or ideologies.

Critics have accused the Senegalese authorities of a witch hunt, saying that Islam is a diverse religion and Muslims should have the right to speak their minds.

Ms. Sow, 42, the woman accused of helping support Boko Haram, was caught up in a dragnet tied to the arrest of Makhtar Diokhané, a Senegalese citizen, by Nigerian authorities.

Officials said he was carrying a large sum of money, including counterfeit bills, and they accused him of enlisting Senegalese imams to recruit for Boko Haram.

Ms. Sow and her family had taken Mr. Diokhané’s wife, Coumba Niang, into their home while her husband was away.

The authorities said Mr. Diokhané had been sending his wife large sums of money — the total amount was unclear but officers described stacks of 500 euro bills.

Ms. Sow kept the money wrapped in a scarf in her home as a favor for Ms. Niang, according to her lawyer, who denied that his client knew the origins of the money or its possible affiliation with Boko Haram.

The lawyer, Djibril Welle, said the Sow family knew only that Ms. Niang’s husband worked abroad and sent back money to his wife frequently, a common situation in parts of Senegal where work is scarce.

When they learned that Ms. Niang was getting ready to leave for Niger, presumably with the cash, they went to the police to report her, Mr. Welle said.

The fact that Ms. Sow was arrested, too, was deeply troubling to her family.

Sitting on a couch in the family’s house, Ms. Sow’s older sister, who declined to be named for fear that she might worsen the situation, wailed into a wispy white scarf that her little sister was innocent.

“She doesn’t know anything about killing people,” she sobbed. “We are Muslims. We don’t like people killing each other.”