A fight for the soul of Islam

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Violent Islamist fundamentalism has not yet come to Senegal, but it could – just as it has in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. A fascinating new feature film from Senegal shows how it could happen. By Aviva Freudmann

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The Islamist fundamentalists came into town softly at first, bearing cash and gifts. Slowly they won over the townspeople and gained authority. And then they took control – imposing a harsh and violent rule on unsuspecting people who had practiced a gentle form of Islam for centuries.

That is the main story line of a gripping new film by a young Senegalese filmmaker, Mamadou Dia. “Baamum Nafi” (Nafi’s Father) was shown in February at the Film Museum in Frankfurt in the presence of the director, who spoke with the audience afterwards about what he has to say in this film, and why.

On one level the film is a family drama. It concerns two brothers, one known only as “the Tierno”, the town’s long-serving Imam, who leads his people with a gentle hand. The Tierno, a much-loved but somewhat weak figure, has lived in the town all his life.

His older brother, Ousmane, on the other hand, received their father’s support to travel abroad and expand his horizons. Ousmane became a follower of a radical fundamentalist known only as “the Sheikh”. He returned to his home town as an agent of the Sheikh, bringing with him the violent jihadist’s cash and gifts with which to buy influence, and a band of thugs with whom to take control.

Complicating matters is that the two brothers are also fathers, and their teenage children – the Tierno’s daughter Nafi and Ousmane’s son Tokara – are in love and wish to marry. In view of their traditionalist families, the kids are quite avant-garde: the beautiful and intelligent Nafi wishes to study medicine in Dakar and become a doctor, and the gentle and talented Tokara wishes to study dance and become a professional dancer. They support each other in their aspirations.

Disputing the true nature of Islam

The two fathers are unaware of these modernist winds blowing through their own homes. They are focused on their struggles with each other: the Tierno’s bitterness that he did not have Ousmane’s opportunities in the world; their differences over how the wedding of their children should be conducted; and their battle to control the town and determine how Islam will be practiced there.

The Tierno is clearly the more sympathetic of the two brothers. But the towns­people, blinded by cash gifts and by arguments about “true Islam” meant to undermine the Tierno’s authority, gradually shift to Ousmane’s camp.

Then the dark side of Islamist fundamentalism starts to appear. Women are required to cover themselves from head to toe with chadors. Forced marriages take place in a mass ceremony. Girls skipping rope run away when the religious overseers approach, knowing that anything that looks like fun is against the new rules. Unmarried couples holding hands in public are seen as a problem.

It gets worse. A petty thief is punished harshly; one sees a sword coming down, and while a severed hand is not shown, viewers get the idea. A town that was previously easy-going and tolerant turns into a fearful place gripped by corrupt, power-mad rulers using religion to impose a reign of terror.

What does Islam mean?

Clearly, a new interpretation of Islam has taken hold. The townspeople are ambivalent; many were taken by surprise. At one point the two brothers debate what Islam actually means. Is it a religion of tolerance and charity, as the Tierno understands it? Or is it a harsh system of rules based on strict interpretation and punitive application of Koranic precepts, as seen by Ousmane?

The film ultimately is a tragedy. To be able to marry, Nafi and Tokara carry out a trick to get around Islamist rules. The gambit ends badly. But towards the end, Nafi does go off to university and one gets the sense that many townspeople have come to see the reign of terror for what it is, and turn against it.

Interestingly, this film was made in Mamadou Dia’s home town of Matam, in northeastern Senegal, right on the border of Mauritania. Only two professional actors were involved – those portraying the two brothers. Every­one else in the film is a resident of Matam.

That arrangement gives the film a documentary aspect – showing daily life in a small town – while weaving in fictional elements to show how violent Islamism can infiltrate a peaceful town. It also meant Dia – who previously worked as a journalist across Africa – could produce his first feature-length film on a low budget.

“There is not just one type of Muslim

In his comments to the audience in Frankfurt after the screening, Dia explained why he made this film. “In 2014 I went to New York to study film. Every time I said I am a Muslim, people had a certain idea of what that is, and I had to explain, ‘no, Senegal is different, that is not how we live Islam.’” Senegal is officially a secular state and it outlaws violent fundamentalism. In local towns, the practice of Islam is often mixed with pre-Islamic traditions.

Dia noted that fundamentalism is an interpretation of Islam and is not necessarily linked to violence. “There are a billion Muslims in the world. There is not just one type of Muslim; there is a whole range. In Senegal, we call Muslims who eat pork and drink alcohol ‘Muslims of the left’, and there are many other types as well. The one percent of Muslims who go around killing people, the so-called jihadists, kill more Muslims than any other religion.”

In response to an audience member from Mali, who noted that violent Islamism has infiltrated much of the Sahel region including Mali, Dia said: “Senegal is not safer or stronger than Mali or Burkina Faso. We all want to live in peaceful places. Senegal is secular and extremism hasn’t happened yet. I wanted to tell the people of Senegal not to wait for extremism to hit before we talk about it. That is why I made the film: to get the debate started.”

Aviva Freudmann

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