TOUBA, Senegal (Reuters) - Buy a watch or a CD from an African street-seller in New York, Paris, or Rome and your money could find its way to this dusty Senegalese city controlled by a powerful Muslim brotherhood.
Known as “little Mecca”, the holy city of Touba sprawls across the flat, arid scrubland of northeast Senegal, its towering white-marble mosque looming above the peanut fields.
It is revered as the birthplace of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride brotherhood, an African branch of Islam which preaches hard work as a means to enter paradise.
From a tiny village 100 years ago, Touba has grown to become the hub of a global network of small businessmen and street hawkers who funnel a share of their profits back to their religious leaders, or marabouts.
“The Grand Mosque, the whole of Touba, was built by Mourides’ donations,” said Cheikh Serigne Abdou Mbacke, a descendant of Bamba, faced by his kneeling disciples in his sprawling residence.
“If we took money from the Saudis to build our mosques, we’d have to pray the way they wanted,” he said.
While a rash of Saudi-built mosques in West Africa has stirred concerns of a rise in Wahhabi fundamentalism in the arid Sahel, the Mourides preach tolerance.
Founded under the yoke of French colonialism in the 1880s, Mouridism values independence and personal religious fulfilment.
Unlike other Muslim holy cities, such as Mecca, women in Touba do not wear a veil and can move freely. One branch of the brotherhood, the dreadlocked Baye Fall, are excused prayer and can even drink alcohol and smoke.
“Islam demands peace and not the kind of egotism where you kill people with Kalashnikovs,” said Cheikh Tidiane Samb, a Baye Fall wearing the group’s colourful patchwork robes.
Originally a rural movement which controlled Senegal’s main cash-crop, peanuts, Mouridism changed forever when a prolonged drought afflicted West Africa in the 1970s, forcing its devotees to the cities. Many marabouts encouraged their followers to head overseas to seek their fortune from trade.
More than a third of Senegal’s 11 million people are now Mourides, including octagenarian President Aboulaye Wade, and the group wields vast influence in the 95-percent Muslim nation.
Wade travelled to Touba in 2000 to thank religious leaders after he won power and many observers say his re-election at polls in February was thanks to the Mourides’ rural power base.
Cheikh Gueye, an expert on the group, says the Mourides’ obedience to their spiritual leaders, which is stricter than in other Sufi brotherhoods, has been used by successive governments in Senegal to win elections.
“The Senegalese government was basically founded by the Islamic brotherhoods,” Gueye said, adding that some of the more militant marabouts had stirred concern in moderate Senegal.
He cited the example of “General” Moudou Kara Mbacke, a young preacher who recruits disenchanted urban youth to the Baye Fall and has founded his own political party, the Party of God’s Truth (PVD), with black-uniformed followers.
Graffiti scrawled around the oceanside capital Dakar proclaims “Kara President” but his party failed to win support and mainstream Senegalese parties remain secular. Nonetheless, Kara’s bid to mix religion and politics stirred alarm.
“If religious problems arise in Senegal, they will come from the Mourides,” said one Senegalese journalist, who asked not to be identified for fear of the brotherhood’s influence.
The political clout of the Mourides has helped maintain hefty subsidies for Senegal’s peanut sector and ensure that Touba remains free of customs duties — making it a busy crossroads for trade across the region.
Their dictum — “pray as if you will die tomorrow and work as if you will live forever” — has brought the Mourides economic success wherever they have settled.
In New York, the Mourides established their own community, Little Senegal, and July 28 has officially been designated Cheikh Amadou Bamba day. Their long robes and tassled hats have become a familiar sight in Harlem.
“The Mourides in New York see their presence as permanent,” said Zain Abdullah, author of a book on West African Muslims in the city. “They see their presence in New York and other places in the United States in missionary terms ... to spread the work of Cheikh Amadou Bamba.”
The sole suriving image of Bamba — a black and white photograph of him wrapped in white robes — appears everywhere in Senegal: hanging on the walls of government offices and businesses; painted onto taxi cabs and buses.
In Dakar’s teeming Sandagar market, controlled by the Mourides, the ramshackle shops and stalls have names like “Wakeur Bamba” — the Followers of Bamba.
But some orthodox Muslims question whether the Mourides’ reverence for Bamba eclipses their respect for the Prophet Mohammad: one of the pillars of Islam. They also note that Baye Fall are excused from fasting during the month of Ramadan and the five daily prayers.
“If you do not pray five times a day and you do not observe Ramadan, what kind of Muslim are you?” said Idrissa Sonko, a night watchman in Dakar.
Mourides also believe that those without the money to make the pilgrimage to Mecca — another of Islam’s pillars, the haj — may simply travel to Touba, with the same spiritual benefit.
In their defence, Mourides say the intervention of the saintly Bamba has allowed them to bend these rules slightly.
“To be a Mouride is above all to be a Muslim,” said Mbacke. “Cheikh Amadou Bamba stayed within the tradition of the prophet.”