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Despite the fact that Senegal is 95 percent Muslim, the global buzz building around President Obama’s speech sputtered out by the time it hit the country's borders.
I was hard pressed to find anyone, much less groups of people, planning to watch the speech.
After the address, I touched base with members of the Muslim Student Association of Senegal, a national network of university students that has been particularly vocal in its support for Palestine.
Though association member Mouhamadou Barro found the speech progressive — certainly nothing we would ever have heard from former President Bush, he said — it still left him underwhelmed.
“What we want are concrete actions. We’ve heard so many speeches,” said Barro. “I didn’t really feel the courage, the energy, of President Obama go to the end. He didn’t bring it home.”
Barro was disappointed with the way Obama addressed the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinean conflict. Obama talked about the thousands of Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001 and the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust but then seemed to gloss over other casualities, other transgressions, he said.
Obama didn’t evoke Israel’s recent attacks in Gaza, which prompted the student association to organize marches and protests here in Dakar. Obama discussed democracy and reconstruction in Iraq, but didn’t address all the damage the United States had done there and the dubious nature with which that war started, Barro said.
The overall lack of interest in the speech highlights a few key things about Senegal, most importantly its isolation with regard to the international Muslim community, Barro said.
“We don’t have a culture that is concerned with the global nature of Islam. That’s it,” Barro said. “A more global view of Islam should cause us to look beyond country borders or questions of skin color, but we have inherited an Islam that has closed us in on ourselves.”
Islam in Senegal is much more about prayer and dogma, he said. I'd say they pervade everyday life. Cab drivers pull over on busy Dakar streets to do their daily prayers. Photos of marabouts and religious sayings are plastered on cars and scooters. The night air is often filled with mens' voices chanting the poems of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mourides, the largest brotherhood in Senegal.
But, lately, the religious community and local media have been far more concerned with denouncing homosexuality than discussing international issues. Senegalese Muslims don’t feel particularly close to Arab Muslims, and marabouts, local religious leaders, are much more concerned with money and political power than conflicts in the Middle East, Barro said.
The state of American-Muslim relations is pretty low on the priority list of most Senegalese, Barro said. Thanks to crushing poverty, chronic unemployment and energy shortages, daily survival doesn't leave much time for watching 50-minute speeches and discussing international politics.
“Certain Senegalese who saw the speech would have been seduced by the verses Obama delivered, the fact that he talked about Islam and its grandeur,” Barro said. “But there are plenty of people who don’t even know Obama is in Egypt.”