TOUBA, Senegal (Reuters) - For Senegalese street sellers from Manhattan to the Vatican, selling fake Prada purses and Chinese-made Gucci sunglasses is as much a question of religious devotion as of making a quick buck.
Many traders are members of the Mouride brotherhood, a branch of African Sufi Islam which has become Senegal’s most influential religious, political and economic force.
A unique mix of militant capitalism and moderate Islam, its central doctrine of hard work as a means to paradise has led thousands to leave Senegal’s sunny shores with one goal — to earn money and send it back to the holy city of Touba.
“Work and don’t complain much. That’s the only doctrine they have,” said Moustapha Diao, 53, a Mouride born in Touba who now lives in Harlem, the heart of New York’s Senegalese community.
Diao used to peddle goods on Manhattan streets at a mark-up after buying them cheaply in Chinatown.
“The only network they have is workaholic,” he said.
Remittances from Mourides abroad have helped the brotherhood grow exponentially since it was founded in the 1880s by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a Muslim mystic, poet and pacifist sent into exile by French colonial authorities who feared his influence.
Known as “little Mecca”, the holy city of Touba has grown from a tiny village into the hub of a global network of small businessmen whose trading acumen means the latest gadgets are available in Senegal as quickly as anywhere in the world.
“My conviction is that if it weren’t for Ahmadou Bamba, I wouldn’t have all this,” said Djily Diop, 22, among fridges, televisions and satellite receivers in his shop in Touba.
Diop had wanted to finish school and maybe go to university. But in a country with tens of thousands of graduates unable to find work, his parents encouraged him to go to a Daara, a Koranic school run by a Marabout or religious teacher.
Unemployment is so high that many young Senegalese have risked their lives taking unseaworthy, overcrowded fishing boats to Spain’s Canary Islands in the hope of finding work in Europe.
“My classmates went to university for three years and now they are unemployed. My parents knew (a Daara) was the best route,” Diop said, dressed in gold-coloured robes.
His access to the Mouride network has enabled him to set up a business and will support him wherever he travels.
“If I go to New York, even if it is someone who does not know me, when I say I am a Mouride he will take me as his brother and share with me,” he said.
“What we have in common — the Marabout — is more important than family ties, community ties, even the fact we are from the same country.”
Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba’s teachings — notably “pray as if you will die tomorrow and work as if you will live forever” — are learned from an early age by many of his followers.
In the peanut fields around Touba, given by the state to the brotherhood’s current caliph Serigne Saliou Mbacke, children as young as 10 tend the crops, part of a Daara education based on hard physical labour as well as religious texts.
“I learned never to get angry. There were people who beat me but it taught me to be strong,” said Cheikh Beye, a Daara-educated trader who sells goods sent by his brother from Dubai and China. “Mourides want to succeed whatever the cost.”
The brotherhood dominates life in much of Senegal.
Homages like “Djeuredjef Serigne Saliou” — thank you Serigne Saliou — are painted all over brightly coloured buses and taxis. Bedroom walls and pendants carry images of the movement’s Marabouts.
Some critics argue the Mourides’ reverence for Bamba and the Marabouts eclipses their respect for the Prophet Mohammad, one of the pillars of Islam, and say the brotherhood has become too powerful a political force in Senegal.
Bamba’s followers emphasize the tolerant nature of his teachings. They say support from Mouride leaders helped keep independence president Leopold Sedar Senghor, a Christian in a predominantly Muslim country, in power.
They regard their readiness to engage other cultures as central to the brotherhood’s global success.
“Here, we do not know this fierce form of Islam in which you have to kill others because they do not believe the same as you, because they are Christian or Jew,” said Cheikh Bethio, one of the most influential of the movement’s living Marabouts.
“That is why it hurts us when the West confuses Islam and terrorism,” he told Reuters as his followers knelt around him in a courtyard near Touba, his brand new Hummer off-roader parked in the shade of a tamarind tree.
Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York and Silvia Aloisi in Rome; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sara Ledwith