(photo credit: REUTERS)
Having spent the past decade working and living in Senegal, I have had the opportunity to observe a 94% Islamic-majority nation that cherishes tolerance and peace. Although Israel is insulted by Senegal’s support of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, it should defer to the greater good and not cut foreign aid to a country that represents a glimmer of hope for a future with positive and tolerant relations between Islamic-majority nations and the government of Israel. In fact, this hope exists in what I believe is a unique relationship between Israel and the people of Senegal.
I’d like to share some stories that all visitors who have spent time in Senegal would consider commonplace:
I was recently invited to the home of a Senegalese friend to celebrate the Muslim holiday known here as Tabaski, where a sheep is slaughtered to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to follow the commandment to sacrifice his son. Over the holiday meal I observed as a young woman spoke about planning a party to celebrate the Catholic communion of her daughter – an event that her Muslim mother acknowledged with approval in front of the entire family.
I also remember spending Christmas 2016 in Senegal and being surprised at entering restaurant after restaurant where Muslim servers wore bright red dresses and holiday decorations were plentiful. I saw bands of men with fake white beards and fullblown Santa Claus outfits dancing to the beat of African tam-tam drums.
Most striking of all is not a story, but a daily observation: every time I drive through Place de l’Indépendence, a main square in downtown Dakar, I am greeted with a sight that fills my heart with joy: waving proudly from a tall office building is the flag of Israel, in full visibility for all to see, a fixture in the bustling capital city landscape.
These moments happen every day in Senegal and are living proof that it can be possible for an Islamic nation to not only tolerate, but also accept and celebrate people with different religious beliefs.
For over 55 years Israel and Senegal have maintained a mostly positive relationship, other than a brief hiatus following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Many people view the relationship as one-sided, where Israel gives and Senegal takes – but I do not.
Given all of Israel’s foreign aid, here’s what I believe Senegal has brings to the table: Senegal provides Israel with positive, long-standing relations with an Islamic-majority nation. The symbolic and practical value of this is extraordinarily important for those of us who hope for a future of peace and understanding.
Senegal brings tolerance and speaks for peaceful coexistence. Strong cultural and religious traditions have made Senegalese society resistant to violent extremist ideologies – and history is proof. Senegal has never been at war with other nations, and has never experienced extreme domestic conflict. Islam in Senegal is organized around several influential brotherhoods which are generally tolerant and do not preach extremist ideology, and are also fairly resistant to external influences. The government of Senegal has reached out to the brotherhoods to offer support in resisting violent extremism.
As evidenced by the current flurry of construction in Dakar, Senegal is growing in its importance as the regional hub of economic influence, security and humanitarian aid. Through its foreign aid, Senegal provides Israel with a unmatchable mechanism for positive regional impact that would otherwise be impossible. Considering the global diaspora of Senegalese, the net benefit for Israel is that tens of millions of Muslims globally are more accepting of Israel.
Senegal voted against Israel’s settlement activity, and this should be no surprise. What else should Israel expect given that Senegal has supported Palestinian issues for decades and chairs the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People? So why is Israel now withdrawing its aid and punishing Senegal for casting a vote that confirms a long-standing policy which was previously disclosed? Regardless of one’s position on the settlements, Israel’s knee-jerk reaction to Senegal’s UN vote is hastily conceived and should be immediately reversed.
Hardly a stab, perhaps a slap.
The UN vote on Israeli settlements is hardly a stab in the back to Israel – perhaps an unwelcome and politically motivated slap that must be accepted to advance a higher objective: stability in the West African region and ongoing positive relationship- building with Senegal and its global citizens representing tens of millions of Muslims.
The long-standing Senegal-Israel relationship can also be used as a model to nurture closer ties with other West African nations.
Senegal is teaching the world an important lesson – they are a living, breathing example of how people of different religions can peacefully coexist in Africa. The notion of secularism elsewhere is that people have the right to celebrate their own religious holidays; but in Senegal, many people believe that everyone should celebrate together.
The practice of tolerance in Senegal is embodied by the spirit of “Taranga,” that we are all part of a human family and must show hospitality to one another regardless of our differences. The hospitality that Senegal showned to Israel upon Golda Meir’s first visit in 1959 exemplifies the spirit of Taranga, and it continues in spite of significant differences between the countries. Israel must now respond with Taranga and continue to build on more than half a century of hospitality that can shine strongly as a beacon of hope for improved relations with the world of Islam.The author is CEO of CyberSmart Africa, a social enterprise using solar power for a new school learning platform reducing information poverty through educational development.