A Diaspora - and its Host - Look BackBy Elizabeth Dickinson
Before July 12, no one could have guessed that gunfire in Lebanon would echo in the streets of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Within hours of the first attacks, local Lebanese merchants were talking. Within days, they were organized. And within a week, on July 20 and 21, they were marching from the city’s Grand Mosque along the principle route in town.
Nor were they alone; joining their chants were hundreds of Senegalese.
“Save Lebanon” banners stretched across open arms, wrapped protestors as capes, and decorated every window.
Lebanese, Moroccan, and even some Senegalese closed their shops. The city stood still. Across the region, Mali, Guinea, and Sierra Leone each saw thousands of Africans marching in support of their Lebanese neighbors.
Although thousands of miles and a continent apart, Beirut and Dakar could not have been closer. Like many African nations in the region, Senegal is host to a largely Shiite Lebanese diaspora that is significant not only in population, but in economic and political influence as well.
But while Lebanese protests arrested normal activity in Dakar for a series of days; they planted questions that will last far longer. Historical tensions have separated Lebanese and Senegalese Muslims in social, economic and political circles for decades. The crisis in the Middle East threw all of this in question. To show support for the Arab world would mean to forge an odd alliance with a resented Lebanese diaspora.
Moreover, most Senegalese practice a moderate brand of Suffi Islam that delicately straddles its relationship between the Arab world and traditional African norms. While Senegalese citizens and their governments have been pressed to demonstrate their solidarity with the Muslim world, popular support for the Lebanese has been short-lived.
Pan-Islamic rhetoric runs skin deep. Historic ties to the Lebanese brought the Senegalese people to the streets—and drove them away just as quickly.
A Diaspora, Trapped
The Lebanese diaspora in West Africa dates to colonial times. Immigrants from impoverished regions of Southern Lebanon came to Senegal around the turn of the century to invest in peanut farming, the staple of the nation’s economy.
Independence brought changes—many economic—and Lebanese traders moved into commerce, manufacturing, and real estate. In Cote d’Ivoire’s capital of Abidjan, 80% of modern buildings are in the hands of Lebanese-Ivorians.
For young African governments, the Lebanese were both a necessity and a liability. Their investment was vital, yet the diaspora’s economic prowess ran counter to the rhetoric of Africanization held by many post-colonial governments. New regimes were hard pressed to put black Africans in power, and keep lighter skinned foreigners out.
As resentment towards their prowess grew, many Lebanese worked hard to form ties with local religious and government leaders. From the 1970s to the present, many of Senegal’s most notable mosques, schools and hospitals have been constructed with Lebanese donations.
Integrated abroad, Integrated at Home
Not surprisingly, the Lebanese communities in West Africa are close—to themselves and to Lebanon.
Seated on the top floor of a Lebanese restaurant, Ahmad Hachem, a Lebanese-Senegalese businessman, and his friends gathered after each demonstration to have a Coca-Cola and discuss their next steps.
“Eighty-five percent of us were born here in Senegal—but there are two sides to that. We were born here, but we share the problems of Lebanon,” said the 38-year-old Mr. Hachem.
He said that after the fighting began in the Middle East, a group of 15 men organized the marches using word of mouth and text messages.
In addition to demonstrating and closing their shops, the group said they planned to meet with officials at the U.S., Canadian, and Israeli embassies.
Brother in Faith
“The Senegalese are on our side,” said Mr. Hachem. “They have seen the terrible images. It is to show solidarity. It is not political, just a cry for help. We don’t have the means to do anything apart from that.”
Indeed, many Senegalese marched alongside the Lebanese community in the streets of Dakar. West Africa’s solidarity with Lebanon, as Mr. Hachem describes, seems apparent not only in Dakar, but across the region. On August 8, 2,000 Guineans of both Lebanese and African descent protested in the streets of the capital, Conakry. Similar demonstrations took place in Sierra Leone, Togo, and Mali the day before.
Yet marching and waving banners in Senegal is altogether different than it might be in Iran or Afghanistan, said Divinity School Professor Lamin Sanneh of Yale University, who specializes in West African Islam.
“Senegalese Islam in general is a moderate form of Islam,” Professor Sanneh said. “It is Islamic but also African, so there is a connection to traditional African ethics. It is a hybrid culture.”
Senegal has often resisted religious interpretations that could compromise its cultural brand of Islam. Indeed, the faithful are overseen by Brotherhoods, which Professor Sanneh described as a mélange of African and Islamic influence. “You get those fiery sermons, but they are moderated,” he said. Far from their Middle Eastern counterparts, Senegalese Brotherhoods have yet to equate local culture with Islam and know instead that they are charged with upholding that difference.
At the same time that it resists an extremist identity, however, Senegal is increasingly aware of the growing influence of Muslim heavyweights in the Middle East. The Senegalese government and intelligencia are poised to show their solidarity with the Arab world. The nation is slated to host an Islamic Conference in 2007, for which it is remodeling the city—building hotels and a network of new highways.
A local government council member at the rallies who asked to remain anonymous said that much of the Senegalese intellectual community was represented at the protests. She affirmed that the protest had obtained the necessary government clearance without difficulty.
Representatives from the Senegalese government and the large Murid Muslim Brotherhood spoke to the crowd in condemnation of the Israeli attacks.
Moreover, Senegalese diplomats joined a Conference of 14 other Muslim nations, among them Iran, Syria, Indonesia, and Turkey, in Malaysia on August 3. Participants demanded a ceasefire and stated in a written declaration: “We express our full support for and solidarity with the Government and people of Lebanon in their legitimate and heroic resistance against the Israeli aggression.”
Fiery condemnations abroad have assuaged Senegal of its obligatory solidarity, and relieved it of any duty to more extremist support.
Neighbors and Friends?
The protests, then, appear an isolated event. Professor Sanneh said, “Any manifestation is a product of local connections that people have built up over the years, rather than Senegal wanting to take place in an Islamic movement.”
Where both geopolitics and rhetoric have failed to support an active pro-Lebanon movement among the Senegalese, historical alliances with the Lebanese may have done a bit. Even here however, support comes from political and economic elites who have maintained relationships with the diaspora over time. On the streets, mutual skepticism remains the norm between Senegalese of African and Lebanese descent.
What can we do?
While many Senegalese protested Israel’s actions, countless others watched curiously as the wave of protesters moved across the city. Small black leaflets were distributed with pictures of bloody Lebanese children, injured by military incursion.
A few hours after the marches in Dakar, banners had fallen down and local Senegalese beggars collected the long sheets of plastic to use as tarps and blankets. Aside from understanding that it was a march organized by the Lebanese, many were at a loss to explain the morning’s events.
The day after protests ended, Lebanese stores opened again in Dakar and business—it seemed—was back to usual.
However vibrant the movement among Lebanese-Senegalese may be, politics and religion alike have failed to forge ties with the black Senegalese population.
For this, and other reasons, the Lebanese protestors seemed at a loss. “We cannot do anything. It’s frustrating and unacceptable,” said Mr. Hachem as he left the restaurant and returned to his home in central Dakar.
On paper, Senegal says it wants to help. But now the streets are empty.
Reporting for this Article was Originally published in the International Herald Tribune. July 21, 2006