Introduction: Rethinking Laicity in Africa
15 November 2023
Photograph of a mural on a wall in Dakar, Senegal, showing leaders of the Mouride Sufi sect, including Ahmadu Bamba (right, in white) and Ibrahima Fall (right, blue), and El Hadj Malick Sy (left), or Mouhamadou Fadilou Mbacké, Erica Kowal, 2006: Image credit: Wikimedia
This issue of Philosophy World Democracy focuses on the concept of laicity in the contexts of Turkey, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. The diverse contributions within this special issue shed light on the compelling inquiry of why, simultaneously in Turkey and West Africa, laicity and secularism have come under intense scrutiny within an atmosphere of political urgency. They constitute initial reflections on the philosophical questions which confront us: Why does politics heavily invest in religion, and why does religion heavily invest in politics despite the possibility that such a combination of politics and religion could worsen gender equality, erode democracy, widen the wealth gap, and curtail political and economic freedoms? How can the state protect itself from the particular ends religious communities may pursue? Inversely, how do the religious communities protect themselves from intervention and exploitation by the ruling power? The questions pertain to the indispensable need for laicity for human flourishing.
This issue of Philosophy World Democracy focuses on the concept of laicity in the contexts of Turkey, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. The genesis of this thematic issue was sparked during a colloquium titled “Repenser la laïcité en Afrique,” organized by the Académie Nationale des Sciences et Techniques du Sénégal, held from November 17-19, 2022, at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar. The inclusion of a discussion on secularism in Turkey at a conference predominantly addressing laicity in West Africa seemed to me initially perplexing, raising questions about the relevance of the Turkish context to an African audience. However, the diverse contributions within this dossier have shed light on the compelling inquiry of why, simultaneously in Turkey and West Africa, laicity and secularism have come under intense scrutiny within an atmosphere of political urgency.
When I arrived in Senegal, I quickly discovered that Senegal has remarkable commercial ties with Turkey. It was hardly possible to miss that Turkish construction companies were working on major regional projects. I saw the colossal works completed by Turkish companies, like the Dakar airport and a new stadium, revealing that we were politically and economically connected. I also learned that Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast were experiencing a similar wave of construction thanks to Turkish presence. It was apparent that Senegal’s populace held President Erdoğan in high regard, perceiving him as a Muslim leader capable of standing up to Western influences. While Turkey’s commendable efforts in advancing modern infrastructure in Senegal were evident, I felt they effaced African cultural heritage and made the city seem anonymous. Indeed, a colleague at the conference expressed her wish to see Senegal’s local companies involved in these urban architectural projects.
Before drawing parallels between Senegal and Turkey, a historical perspective is essential: Senegal achieved independence in 1960 under the leadership of Leopold S. Senghor, an intellectual situating himself between the exigencies of Black African culture and those of modern life. Before independence, the country had functioned as a colony created through spurious legal treaties designed to serve European commercial interests. France had established the Senegalese territory after World War I as a westward gateway to access the interior of the African continent, thereby facilitating the delineation of future African colonial borders. The French presence in Senegal can be traced back to 1677 with the French acquisition of a slave board on the island of Gorée near Dakar, initially occupied by the Portuguese in 1444 for the slave trade. France wrested control of Gorée from the Dutch and ruled it for three centuries until the British abolished the international slave trade in 1900. During industrialization, while the British prioritized the supply of raw materials and new markets for their products, France maintained effective control and administration of Senegal as a foundation for future French expeditions into the African continent’s interior, encompassing the territory referred to as “French sub-Saharan Africa.”
After decolonization, France redrafted its original imperial design rather than engage in an ignominious retreat like the British. According to the Fourth Republic, the union between France and its overseas territories was based on equal rights and duties without distinction of race or religion. However, the membership terms still bore the marks of France’s colonial legacy. France’s policy aimed to assimilate at least a portion of the population into becoming Black Frenchmen.
Several members of the Union, including Senegal, supported France to free itself from German occupation during World War II. Despite France's ability to maintain its status as a major global power after the war, the Fourth Republic had ended due to the upheaval caused by the Algerian war for independence. Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, which introduced a new constitution committed to the policy of decolonization. Former colonies that had achieved autonomy were still considered part of the French Union, but efforts were made to mitigate the negative aspects of European imperialism and black nationalism. This paved the way for European and African states to join the union in a spirit of political reciprocity. Leopold Senghor, who played a role in crafting this new constitution, envisioned Europe and Africa as two complementary continents forming a Euro-African community with political, economic, and cultural dimensions.
Following Senegal’s independence, elites educated in France were brought into administrative positions and benefited from collaboration with France. France had nurtured gifted Senegalese individuals for generations. This strategy might help explain how France managed to maintain its influence in West Africa long after the beginning of decolonization. In Francophone Africa, indigenous leaders adopted electoral systems and political liberties introduced by France. While relations have evolved over time, various factors underpin changes in the dynamics between France and its former colonies.
As France’s influence recedes, other nations, including China, Turkey, and Russia, have emerged as influential players in West Africa. These shifting power dynamics underscore recent events, such as the military coup in Niger. Returning to the core question, why do Senegalese intellectuals now largely agree that the French concept of laicity does not align with Senegal’s present social and political reality? Does that remark signal a new phase of decolonization that calls for a reassessment of Senegalese laicity in relation to its French counterpart? This is the question that we must ponder.
Turkey and Senegal share certain political characteristics. Historically, both nations have positioned themselves as laic states, following the French constitutional model. Additionally, more than 90% of the population in both countries adheres to Islam. However, Islam coexists with indigenous African culture in Senegal, albeit with the growing influence of radical Islamist trends like Wahhabism and Salafism. In Turkey, Islam had long been interwoven with Anatolian culture. However, in recent decades, the ascendancy of neo-traditionalism and Salafism, perceived as more ‘rational’ and authentic interpretations of Islam, has led to the local religious culture being subjected to a more universalizing and essentializing interpretation.
Examining Turkey’s current political landscape yields several noteworthy observations: Since the transition to a presidential system in 2018, the Turkish presidency has become the epicenter of political power, eroding the traditional separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Media freedom in Turkey has dwindled, and decision-making has become concentrated in the hands of a single leader. The parliament’s significance has diminished as presidential decrees based on “expediency” have supplanted the rule of law, leading to a deterioration in legal stability. Key principles such as accountability, transparency, equality of opportunity, liability, and meritocracy are no longer consistently upheld or respected. Consequently, Turkey has faced economic challenges, including high inflation and an impoverishment of the lower socioeconomic strata, leading to an exodus of intellectuals and professionals to Western countries.
While the precise challenges facing Senegal may not mirror Turkey's, their political systems share similarities, potentially yielding comparable outcomes. In both nations, power resides in a presidential palace, with a wealthy minority benefiting while the majority experiences poverty and unemployment. Both countries witness restrictions on academic freedom and freedom of the press. A significant portion of the Senegalese population grapples with unemployment and the associated feelings of despair, prompting many young individuals to explore opportunities for emigration. Notably, the interaction between Turkish and Senegalese cultures has contributed to a recent rise in the number of Senegalese immigrants to Istanbul. This trend likely stems from Turkey’s ability to provide employment opportunities with relatively lower wages for immigrants.
One significant difference between the two nations is that Turkey was never colonized by European powers, unlike Senegal. Turkey gained independence in 1923 after a war with European occupiers and subsequently embarked on a self-modernization journey to maintain its independence in a world dominated by colonial powers. While the Turkish constitution incorporates the principle of laicity, inspired by the French constitution, laicity was adapted to the country’s cultural, economic, and social conditions; the contrast with French laicity is most visible in the fact that the state has historically controlled and financed religious practices in mosques in Turkey. Democratization efforts since the 1950s have allowed religious communities to thrive and expand their political influence. Similarly, in Senegal, the retreat of French laicity has empowered religious authorities and communities to play a more prominent role in political affairs.
The articles in this special issue gather interpretative attempts to make sense of the changing demands and expectations of laicity in Turkey and West Africa, specifically Senegal and Burkina Faso, with the common thread in the boundedness of laicity with particular political histories.
In his book on laicity titled La Laïcité, Histoires, théories et pratiques, which is reviewed in this dossier by Malick Badji, Malick Diagne asserts that any discourse on the essence of laicity cannot be divorced from the unique historical context of the country in which this concept is applied. He rejects the idea that laicity/ secularism is specifically inherent to European history, and countries that do not belong to that history can only apply an external model borrowed from Europe, thus betraying their own cultural and historical identities. He argues that laicity is fundamentally about managing the relations between political power and religion, which can be done differently in different contexts. Diagne supports his argument by comparing different experiences of laicity in various countries such as Senegal, France, Canada, the United States, and Turkey. According to Diagne, the French model of laicity does not fit Senegal because African spirituality pervades both the private and the public sphere. It is not feasible to exclude it from political life. Diagne also makes some interesting remarks on Turkish laicity by pointing to its ties to the Ottoman experience.
Christophe Tukov compares the constitution of France, marked by the principle « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité » with the constitution of Senegal and remarks that although there are resemblances regarding symbolical values, there are differences between the Senegalese laicity and French laicity generated by the differences of their constitutional approaches. According to Tukov, laicity is not a univocal notion even though there is a common substrate to laicity which consists of the separation of temporal and spiritual powers and a policy of neutrality in relation to different religious and secular segments of society, and the respect for the liberty of conscience and its expressions. Different states may have different politics of laicity. Politics of laicity may be exclusive or inclusive and may involve interdictions or liberties.
Mahamet Timera questions the new laicity model proposed and defended in Senegal, which brings with it, in various forms, a strong investment of politics in religion. The reverence for religion on the part of the political power is concretized in political institutions, in the design and functioning of which religious authorities have control. Hence, there is an infusion and increasing power of the religious over the society, with an impetus from politics.
Cyrille Koné considers the problem of laicity in Burkina Faso, which is, in the present, intermittently disturbed by terrorist attacks. For him, a new model of laicity that does not repress liberties and does not consist of an empty name that lacks a political reality is indispensable to a new republican pact that should bring peaceful living to the country and make personal flourishing possible. Laicity requires equality; the government should not discriminate between ethnic and religious groups and allocate resources fairly. Failing to do so inevitably creates resentment among the groups who feel discriminated against. Koné distinguishes between the formal idea of laicity and the torsions of the idea. He does not see a problem with the formal notion of laicity, which conforms to the contemporary age. The state allows the autonomous growth of religious communities and, even though it maintains a laic general education, permits the religious communities to contribute privately to youth education. The formal idea reflects legal equality that also promotes pluralism. However, Koné implies that this constitution remains ineffective in Burkina Faso because governors fail to defend the human rights that the constitution prescribes. Thus, the laic state counts for no more than a flatus vocis.
Zeynep Direk’s essay deals with a liberal critique of Turkey's Kemalist revolution that institutes laicity. She considers the revolution a political performative enrooted in the history of the late Ottoman Empire's modernization. Although Turkish laicity pretends to constitute itself after French laicity, that is only formally the case. In practice, it relies on limiting, financing, and controlling religion and does not stay indifferent and neutral in relation to citizens from all religions. The French model of laicity had come under severe critique in Turkey because its supposedly neutral universalism was exclusive of people who demanded to appear in the public sphere without repressing their religiosity. Neutrality has been characterized as promoting and empowering the secular style of existence over the religious ones. The transformation of the public sphere in Erdoğan’s rule overcame the repression; however, the balance was lost in the opposite direction, giving rise to the control of state ministries by the religious communities. Autonomous religious communities have become allies and operational elements of the government and are fully integrated into the state. It is unclear if the state can maintain an authority over them. The military coup in 2016 shows that religious communities can challenge and compete for the power to rule. The quitting of the practice of laicity that excludes religiosity from the public sphere made the religious communities powerful in ministries, resulting in nepotism, loss of equal opportunity, and discrimination based on religious creed. It showed that religious communities are political and economic associations seeking power and state control.
Ravza Altuntaş Çakır argues that a lack of consensus on the meaning of secularism in the Muslim world is closely tied to entrenched ideological, cultural, and political contests. The anti-secular discourses are often justified by essentialist Islamic doctrines. They perceive secularism as an alien philosophy, ‘heretical from Islam’s point of view,’ that controls and excludes religious lifestyles (Yavuz, 2007: 482). Abdolkarim Soroush and İlhami Güler stand out as proponents of an anti-essentialist intellectual trend that has aimed to contextualize secularism to accentuate its political significance for a just and democratic political system. Güler’s theory of ‘the politics of mercy’ and Soroush’s distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘religious knowledge’ clear the space for the exposition of political secularism situated within Muslim majority contexts.
To conclude, Islam is often argued to be a political religion and will not accept being confined to the private realm. To expect Islam to be confined to the private sphere would also be to neglect its requirement that Muslims live as a religious community. However, such religious communities invest in politics, which, in turn, invest in them. The risks are many. To enumerate only a few, the fall away from rational and critical thinking based on adequate information and evidence, promotion of heavily religious education, disrespect of equality of citizens before the law, nepotism based on religious standing in religious organizations, employment without liability, sexual segregation, discrimination based on sexism and spiritual world view. If these risks are realized, populism and escalating radicalization will steer societies further away from democratic liberties.
While acknowledging that laicity and secularism are concurrently challenged in Islamicate cultures and in histories that are so dissimilar, the sample of discourses from Turkey, Senegal, and Burkina Faso gathered here is not in itself adequate for an explanation. We also see that the philosophical questions still stand: Why does politics heavily invest in religion, and why does religion heavily invest in politics despite the possibility that such a combination of politics and religion could worsen gender equality, erode democracy, widen the wealth gap, and curtail political and economic freedoms? How can the state protect itself from the particular ends religious communities may pursue? Inversely, how do the religious communities protect themselves from intervention and exploitation by the ruling power? The questions pertain to the indispensable need for laicity for human flourishing.