“Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static – Shi‘i Muslim world.” —- Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University



Mara Leichtman
Mara Leichtman

This past Fall, Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, published her latest book — Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Indiana University Press, 2015). It followed her 2009 edited volume (with Mamadou Diouf) New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan).

Educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University, Leichtman has been a visiting fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.

How did she come to be interested in the topic of Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal?

Leichtman told ISLAMiCommentary that while earning her master’s degree in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University a professor gave her an article about the Lebanese community in Ivory Coast — knowing of her interests in both Africa and the Middle East. It piqued her curiosity.

So when she started the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University, she decided to research the Lebanese community in Abidjan.

“This was in 1999, when there was a coup d’état in Ivory Coast, which is what led me to Senegal, as a more stable option,” she said in a written interview with ISLAMiCommentary.

As her research got underway, Lebanese in Senegal regularly asked her why she wanted to study their community. In response she said she drew upon her origins in Michigan — and its significant Lebanese (and particularly Lebanese Shi‘i) community.

“My mother happened to work at the time with a woman of Lebanese origin who was born in a village in Senegal,” she said. “Lebanese in Senegal were delighted to hear of this personal connection.”

While she set out to study the Shi‘i Lebanese community in West Africa, she didn’t know in advance that she would also find Senegalese Shi‘i converts.

Senegal is predominantly Sunni Muslim (94%) following the Maliki school of jurisprudence with Sufi influences. While Shi‘i Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, Leichtman said the number is growing as Senegalese convert. (Christians make up about 5% of the Senegalese population, and an even smaller demographic continues to practice what is referred to as “African traditional religion.”)

It was the first Lebanese shaykh in Senegal, Shaykh Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, who initially told Leichtman that Senegalese were converting to Shi‘i Islam. She was able to eventually connect with Senegalese Shi‘i leaders through Walfadjri, a media conglomerate that hosted a weekly radio show featuring Muslims of different denominations and regularly invited various Senegalese Shi‘a to participate.

In this interview, Leichtman introduces us to these communities and the importance of learning more about them.

Cover of French missionary magazine Voix d ’Afrique 24, October 4–17, 1976, depicting a Lebanese cedar tree taking root in West Africa. The cover story is entitled “The Lebanese in Africa: Parasites or Agents of Development?”
Cover of French missionary magazine Voix d ’Afrique 24, October 4–17, 1976, depicting a Lebanese cedar tree taking root in West Africa. The cover story is entitled “The Lebanese in Africa: Parasites or Agents of Development?”

How long have Lebanese been in Senegal? What is their history there? What kinds of jobs do they hold?  

Migrants, both Muslims and Christians, began to leave Lebanon in the nineteenth century seeking better economic opportunities abroad to improve their local social rank, fleeing the 1860 massacres, and later avoiding conscription in the Ottoman army following the 1908 revolution in Ottoman Turkey. Lebanese migrated to all five continents, but first arrived in West Africa as early as the 1880s, and especially during the 1920s, via Marseilles, the transportation hub of the time. Emigrants planned to continue on to the Americas, where there had been previous Lebanese immigration.

According to the tale told by today’s Lebanese of Senegal, their ancestors boarded ships heading for the Americas, but they never reached their destination. Ships docked at Dakar or elsewhere on the West African coast, and Lebanese found work as intermediaries in the peanut trade between the French in cities and Senegalese peasants in rural areas.

Lebanese settlement in Senegal was first patterned by temporary migration, with the intention of returning to Lebanon to retire and reinstate their children in the country of origin. Economic opportunities kept many Lebanese in Africa, and later conflict in Lebanon eliminated the possibility of return.

Lebanese shops range from small grocers to importers of European fabric and clothing, household items, shoes, furniture, and electronics. They own numerous fast-food restaurants and finer French-style bakeries and cafes that include Lebanese specialties. Responding to the changing Senegalese economy and increased competition in retail, second and third generations have moved into industry and the professions, dominating the plastic, paper, and cosmetics sectors and even holding a share in the African textile-manufacturing industry. Among the Lebanese of Senegal are also doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, tailors, and mechanics.

What kind of field research did you do for your book and what kinds of sources did you consult? Did you spend months, years in Senegal? 

I used an interdisciplinary methodology. I lived for a total of more than two years with the Lebanese community of Senegal over a period of 13 years (from 2000-2013). I also spoke with Senegalese academics, religious leaders, demographers, and journalists. I used documents from Dakar’s national archives to better understand the French colonial period and French policy on Islam in general and Lebanese immigration in particular. I searched Senegalese newspapers for articles written about the Lebanese community and Shi‘i Islam. I also recorded Friday prayer sermons and other religious speeches, and obtained videos of events and documentary films in order to conduct discourse analysis. The most important part of my research consisted of what anthropologists refer to as “participant observation”: attending community events, and observing rituals performed in religious institutions, holidays, weddings, funerals, embassy receptions, and daily interactions of people at home, at work, and on the streets.

My research is multi-sited, beginning in Lebanon, continuing in Senegal, and including several trips to Europe. I drew on relations between Lebanese in Senegal and Lebanon, an important aspect of any migrant group, even second and third generations. Prominent Shi‘i organizations based in London and Paris provided additional insight into transnational religious connections to Senegal.

A coed class at College al-Zahra, Dakar, 2003. A photo of Shaykh al-Zayn decorates the back of each classroom.
A coed class at College al-Zahra, Dakar, 2003. A photo of Shaykh al-Zayn decorates the back of each classroom. (click to enlarge)

Your book is titled “Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa.” What is meant by “Shi‘i cosmopolitanism”?

I use the term cosmopolitanism to move beyond the political boundaries of the nation-state model that is at the core of theories of migrant transnationalism. This is helpful in examining the Lebanese community in Senegal — a community that spans four generations. Many Lebanese were born there and never had an opportunity to visit Lebanon.

Anthropologists, like myself, understand cosmopolitanism to be a local engagement, while being influenced by and having influence on the global. Cosmopolitanism thus enables me to more broadly examine the impact of foreign influence on the Lebanese in Senegal, including the era of French colonialism (1880s-1960) and the Iranian revolution (1979). I also explore connections between Lebanese and native Senegalese in Dakar, where the influence of migrants on the host society is often neglected in the migration studies literature.

Muslim cosmopolitanism is a growing area of scholarship. Islamic Studies scholars have started to write against those who define Islam as “counter-cosmopolitan” (a problematic term coined by cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah).

Some scholars have taken a narrow understanding of Islam in a post-9/11 context and opposed “cosmopolitanism” and “Islamism” — equated with “fundamentalism” and “terrorism”.

My book contributes counter examples of cosmopolitan Shi‘i Muslim communities, which are under-examined in academic writings about Islam and cosmopolitanism.

In African Studies, concepts of cosmopolitanism and autochthony (being “from the soil”) often go hand in hand. Global identities – being “citizens of the world” — are pitted against perceptions of being foreigners or strangers and therefore not belonging locally.

I explore how the predominantly Shi‘i Muslim minority communities of Lebanese migrants and Senegalese “converts” (to use that term loosely) to Shi‘i Islam strategically use their cosmopolitanism to assert political autochthony in Senegal.

For example, this cosmopolitanism unites Lebanese Muslims and Christians in Senegal as a collective ethnic group of “Senegalese of Lebanese origin.” For Senegalese converts, Shi‘i Islam transcends indigenous ethnic groups and enables members to draw from Shi‘i resources in Iran and Lebanon. Yet despite its foreign origins, Shi‘i Islam has also adapted to local Senegalese religious culture.

Can you give some examples?

Shaykh al-Zayn has worked to avoid a Sunni-Shi‘i divide in Senegal by shaping the rhetoric of his sermons in order to coexist with – and even to draw in – Sunni Muslims. For example, he does not list the names of the twelve Shi‘i Imams in his Friday sermons in an effort to open with a more universally Islamic introductory prayer. He carefully labels his institution an Islamic institute, not a Shi‘i institute.

Senegalese Shi‘a have transformed the annual commemoration of Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, during which the martyrdom of Imam Husayn fourteen hundred years ago is remembered by Shi‘a around the world. This day of mourning and sadness for Shi‘a can also be a day of celebration for Sunni Muslims. In Senegal Ashura overlaps with Tamkharit, a joyful occasion with carnival-like festivities. Senegalese Shi‘a cater to Sunni Muslims in their commemoration of Ashura by organizing public debates that discuss whether this day should be a celebration or a day of mourning. They play up the closeness that African Sufis also feel toward the family of the Prophet.

Can you also explain how often Shi‘i Lebanese “foreigners” and local “of the soil” Senegalese come into conflict, and how differing views of religion and race manifest themselves in violent ways?

As a racial and religious “other” in Senegal, Lebanese face increasing economic competition from Senegalese and some negative media portrayals. They adapted their businesses and applied for Senegalese citizenship to accommodate Senegal’s post-independence politics of Africanization and nationalization laws.

There is a popular discourse in Senegal surrounding the lack of Lebanese “integration” due to a low rate of Lebanese-Senegalese intermarriages. Lebanese consider the marriage question to be a false problem, as underscored by one lawyer’s provocative words: “Integration is not done below your belt.” Instead Lebanese civil society organizations have worked toward the right of Lebanese to be recognized as an ethnic group in Senegal. Lebanese highlight how they are fluent in Senegalese languages, enjoy Senegalese culinary traditions, are familiar with Senegalese customs, respect national and religious holidays, and developed joking relationships and local forms of business bargaining with Senegalese.

They have invested in and helped to build the country and supported Senegalese efforts for independence from French colonialism. Lebanese are occasionally targets of hate crimes and petty theft, but Senegal has not experienced ethnic violence like other countries in Africa (with the exception of a period in 1989 when tensions heightened between Senegalese and Mauritanians in Senegal). Today there is a growing population of Chinese migrants in Africa, who are replacing the Lebanese community as scapegoats.

You mention in your book that over the past few decades Shi‘i Muslim converts have increased in Senegal. What are the roots of Shi‘ism in Senegal? Is Shi‘ism growing in a particular part of Africa or all over Africa?  One hears a lot about the growth of Salafism in Africa. I’m curious to know more about the changing religious landscape. 

Senegalese Shi"i shaykh wearing robe and turban, Dakar, 2003. Author’s collection.
Senegalese Shi”i shaykh wearing robe and turban, Dakar, 2003. Author’s collection.

Senegalese are connected to global Shi‘i networks through two major influences: The Lebanese Shaykh al-Zayn ties them (and Lebanese Shi‘a) to Lebanon and the Iranian embassy and nongovernmental organizations bring Iranian religious ideologies to Dakar.

Early in his career in Senegal al-Zayn, who arrived in 1969, did not have access to a local body of Lebanese Shi‘a who were formally educated in Islam who could assist him with his religious work. He was the only Lebanese cleric in Senegal at that time and drew on the expertise of Senegalese who were knowledgeable and influential in Islamic affairs and well connected with local Sufi leaders. Some of these Senegalese men who assisted Shaykh al-Zayn were among the first to learn about Shi‘i Islam and converted while others never left Sunni Islam.

Shi‘i associations inspired by the Iranian revolution began to form in Senegal in the 1980s. These can be understood as part of the movement for  Islamic reform in West Africa.

The origins of Sunni Islamic reform movements in Senegal can be traced back to the 1930s — to the gradual concentration in urban areas of students who returned from studying abroad in religious centers of the Middle East and North Africa. Referred to in French as Arabisants, these young men were fluent in Arabic, well versed in textual Islam, and often unable to succeed in Senegal’s modern Francophone sector. Many became Arabic teachers in Senegal’s secondary schools.

(Islamic reform movements, Sunni or Shi‘i, promote a return to an earlier and supposedly more “pure” or “authentic” Islamic practice. Followers are taught to distance themselves from Western influences and these moral movements are characterized by an increase in Islamic learning, mosque attendance, displays of public piety, and the provision of social welfare services.)

Reformist Islamic movements in Africa are mostly understood as Sunni or Salafi – coming from Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries, but there is a growth of Shi‘ism all over the continent. Some Shi‘a in Senegal even experimented first with Sunni reformist Islam. My book focuses on Senegal as one case study, and as a predominantly peaceful example.

However, there have been tensions surrounding the growth of Shi‘i Islam elsewhere in Africa, such as in Morocco, where the Iranian Embassy was closed in 2009 for encouraging the spread of Shi‘i Islam. In Nigeria, there was a crackdown last December in Zaria on the Islamic Movement in Nigeria by the Nigerian army. The leader of Nigeria’s Shi‘i movement, Ibrahim Zakzaky, was shot and detained, and hundreds of Nigerian Shi‘a were reportedly killed and buried in mass graves.

Zakzaky has been a vocal advocate for an Iranian-style revolution and has rejected the secular state. This is very different from the goals of the Shi‘i movement in Senegal, which is to spread Islamic education and ideas about development in the absence of state resources. Senegalese Shi‘a are proponents of religious coexistence.

Scholars in the past distinguished between “Islam in Africa” — or foreign Islamic reformist movements – and “African Islam,” the local Sufi orders (Westerlund and Rosander 1997). Yet the reality on the ground is much more complex.

I examine Senegal’s Shi‘i Islamic movement as both inspired by Iranian and Lebanese influences and also parallel to other Sunni reformist movements in Senegal. Young Senegalese Muslims are searching for a new Islamic identity and this is not a phenomenon unique to Shi‘i Islam. Senegal’s Shi‘i Islamic networks can thus be seen as part of a larger global process.

As you mention in the preface to your book, your study “documents the beginnings of a Shi‘i movement in Senegal” and doesn’t look at Shi‘i  Islam, as other scholars and journalists have done, “as a ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, but as a religious identity and way of being.” That noted, how does your book approach Hizbullah?  What is the extent of its influence in Senegal and other parts of Africa?

Lebanese shop, Dakar, 2013. (click to enlarge)
Lebanese shop, Dakar, 2013. (click to enlarge)

The Lebanese community in Senegal was established a century before Hizbullah was created in Lebanon (in 1982), and, as I noted earlier, many Lebanese in Senegal have never been to Lebanon. The diaspora community is therefore largely disconnected from Lebanese day-to-day politics. There have, however, been recent efforts by Lebanese political organizations (Muslim and Christian) to gain support in Africa, and their deputies occasionally visit the Lebanese community in Senegal. Hizbullah has provided loans to some young men from Lebanon in order to start businesses in Senegal. They are expected to pay back these loans when they become financially established. These loans have led to the opening of new cafes or restaurants in Dakar serving Lebanese cuisine.

The 2006 Lebanon War (or Israel-Hizbullah War) was a challenge for Lebanese Muslim and Christian unity in Senegal. Round-the-clock coverage by Hizbullah’s channel Al-Manar  (available in Senegal for the past two decades) and the horrific images of death and destruction moved Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal to publicly protest the war in Lebanon. This was the first demonstration by the Lebanese community in Senegal in support for Lebanon. A silent vigil also took place at Dakar’s Independence Square where Lebanese and some Senegalese lit hundreds of candles commemorating the war victims. Such public expression of allegiance with the homeland did not take place in Senegal during the lengthy Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).

I returned to Dakar during the 2009 Lebanese general elections. Lebanese in Senegal had noticeably become more politicized than before the 2006 war, and, for the first time, some of them even voted in the elections. Various political parties paid for some Lebanese in the diaspora with Lebanese citizenship to return to Lebanon in order to cast their votes. Lebanon does not currently have an absentee voting system.

Why should opinion leaders and policy-makers read your book?

Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static –  Shi‘i Muslim world.

I am occasionally asked by journalists for interviews on the Lebanese community in Senegal, but often they are only interested in a quote on Hizbullah’s financial network in West Africa. The reality of the Lebanese diaspora is never described by the media: that the Lebanese community in Senegal was established a century before Hizbullah’s existence in Lebanon. While some Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal are emotionally supportive of Hizbullah’s mission to protect and rebuild their villages of origin in southern Lebanon, many Senegalese of Lebanese origin are not citizens of Lebanon and cannot vote for Hizbullah. Senegal is also a poor country and many Lebanese do not have resources to financially sustain the organization — the community has their own charity organizations that do good work to support those in need in Senegal.

There has also been recent interest in some immigrant shaykhs in Europe and the United States for their role in mobilizing young Muslims against Western interests (for example through recruiting for al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State). Shaykh al-Zayn provides a counter-example of an immigrant shaykh who does not misuse his authority. He promotes religious tolerance and coexistence. My book can additionally offer a historical and generational perspective on today’s Middle Eastern refugee crisis, as it illustrates processes of immigrant integration and identity construction of a now established yet understudied diaspora population.



 ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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