Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Buffet Institute, March 2009


This essay examines the relationship between religion and the state as articulated in the thought of the founding father of the Republic of Senegal: Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal’s first President) and Mamadou Dia (Senegal’s first Prime Minister). Although Senghor was Catholic and Dia a Muslim, they shared a vision of a state built upon the philosophical foundations of an African socialism that was at once secular and spiritualist. Indeed, religion was central to their project of modernity. While fundamentally convinced of the necessity of a secular state, Senghor and Dia also believed just as firmly that religious fervor was a cultural energy essential for achieving modernization and development. According to Senghor, secularism made possible the liberation of religion from political control and also protected religion from fossilization, by encouraging its constant movement and progression. The disposition toward pluralism and tolerance found in Sufism was highly compatible with this vision. But Senghor’s spiritualist discourse disappeared with him, replaced by a compromise pact that assured politicians the support, especially during elections, of the marabouts, who became participants in the “political game.” This art of securing the political support of the marabouts is widely considered to be characteristic of the “Senegalese social contract”–a contract that can be efficacious while the country awaits the establishment of a true democracy and an open society. Indeed, the marabouts have often played the role of social moderators or peacemakers in the public arena. Nonetheless, many observers have noted the more recent appearance of new phenomenon that threaten to blur the line between politics and religion–particularly the increased implication of the Sufi brotherhoods in public life–and which pose challenges for Senegal. The author concludes that, since the programs of modernity and development have largely failed in Senegal, it would be useful to revisit and rework the modernity project articulated at independence, in which Senghor and Dia envisaged religions playing an essential role.

View the paper hereReligion and the Public Sphere in Senegal: The Evolution of a Project of Modernity