Accepted Paper:

The NGO-ization of Shi'i Islam in Senegal: Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide  


Mara Leichtman (Michigan State University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the use of urban and rural space by the Senegalese Shi‘i NGO Mozdahir International in the name of material and spiritual development. Strategic use of public space by Islamic minorities facilitates the sharing of resources, bridging Senegal’s urban/rural and religious divide.

Paper long abstract:

Religious minorities are increasingly presenting themselves to the world in the institutional form of NGOs, which allows for access to various public spheres, translocal networks, and resources. Senegalese began to "convert" to Shi'i Islam as a result of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Through the case study of Mozdahir International, a fast-growing Senegalese Shi'i organization, I examine the use of space to consolidate an Islamic minority in the name of material and spiritual development. Many development projects are carried out in Senegal's southern Casamance region, but the Dakar headquarters are used to interact with government officials, access the international airport for business trips and donor visits, spread religious messages through national media, and facilitate interactions between Mozdahir's followers and aid recipients in Dakar's suburbs and the Casamance. Strategically located near the University of Dakar, the NGO office attracts students to its library and Islamic courses during frequent university strikes. Mozdahir's use of rural space is similarly calculated. The organization built a banana plantation with worker housing in a village founded from unclaimed territory and named Najaf al-Ashraf, after Iraq's holy Shi'i city. Successful fundraising among Shi'i businessmen in Kuwait led to last year's opening of a prominent mosque in Senegal's south publicly proclaiming the NGO's transnational influence and regional importance. Senegal's only Shi'i radio station in Dakar spreads religious and development ideologies to listeners near and far. The use of public space thus facilitates the sharing of resources among needy followers, bridging Senegal's urban/rural divide for the Shi'i minority.

Panel P153
Religious Minorities in Africa. Urban areas as crossroads: meeting points, safe heavens, and stages