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  • Shi'i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal by Mara A. Leichtman
  • Shobana Shankar
Shi'i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal
mara a. leichtman
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015, pp. 320, $30.00 paper.

This book provides an original and timely analysis of the dynamics of religion and race in transnational migration. Mara Leichtman skillfully weaves together many stories into one: the history of the Lebanese diaspora in Senegal, the growing importance of its explicitly Shi'i identity after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the growth of Shi'ism among Senegalese. The result is a clear yet sophisticated portrayal of how this school of Islam, although a minority sect in West Africa, has generated special transnational networks within the wider Islamic world. Her book demonstrates that globalization and cosmopolitanism—often empty concepts or ones generated from outside and applied to Africa—can be theorized from studying the secular, religious, elite, and grassroots practices and ideas of a multiracial community in Senegal.

Leichtman's introduction situates her case in scholarship on Islamic universalism, its relationship to cosmopolitanism, and autochthony. She draws on history, anthropology, political science, and other disciplines, and on Africanist and non-Africanist scholarship, to highlight the ongoing and active construction of Muslim identity in Senegal over decades and with the direct and indirect participation of West Africans, Arabs, Iranians, and French from different religious backgrounds. The introduction alone is required reading for anyone interested in the contested idea of cosmopolitanism, not least to learn from Leichtman's challenge to narrow (secularist and neoliberal) definitions of it. Her incorporation of Senegalese concepts, such as teranga (hospitality), helps decenter Eurocentric and Arabocentric terms. Acknowledging disciplinary differences in approaches to Islamic cosmopolitanism, she might have been less modest in foregrounding her own interdisciplinary methods, which traverse any perceived distinction between the social sciences and humanities (11). As [End Page 200] later chapters show, she integrates archival sources, theology, sermons, and newspapers seamlessly.

The book is divided into two parts, the first covering the establishment and transformation of the Lebanese community in Senegal and the second exploring the conversion and social integration of Senegalese Shi'a. The Lebanese as a bomb, exploding all over the world, fittingly begins Part I. The historical imagination of ancient seaborne trade out of Lebanon, imperialism, conflict, and military conscription all account for this global dispersion. Although Senegalese tend to lump Lebanese with Arabs and all whites, the Lebanese possess a self-understanding that is distinct. They first arrived in West Africa in the 1880s, and subsequent waves came, often through Marseille. Chapter 1 focuses on the French mission civilisatrice and its impact on the Lebanese. By constructing an idea of fundamental racial and ethnic differences in Islam, the French sought to divide Arab and African Muslims and banned Lebanese from public prayer, medersas (schools), and Senegalese residential neighborhoods. The Lebanese were also denied access contact with Lebanon and other countries where Lebanese had settled. It is not surprising that by independence, the focus of chapter 2, the Lebanese were cocooned as a mercantile middle class isolated from Senegalese. The Lebanese question presented something of a conflict or divergence between the first prime minister, Mamadou Dia, who took a forceful approach against economic elites including the Lebanese, and President Léopold Senghor, who tried to assuage racial tensions by expressing his admiration for Arab civilization while favoring their integration. When Dia was ousted in 1962, Senghor fostered collaboration between the state and merchants. With the consolidation of economic power and the slow growth of opportunities for non-elite Africans, the idea of Lebanese "parasitism" persisted into the 1990s. This chapter offers a nuanced reading of the possibilities and problems of Lebanese integration by different paths. Few entered politics, but the career of Jamila shows how non-elite solidarity was helpful in rebuilding interracial relations. Other means of integration included the construction of an ethnic Lebanese identity akin to Senegalese ethnicities, official citizenship, marriage, and métissage (as biological and cultural mixing). Here Leichtman's skill as an anthropologist shows in her analysis of culturally relevant ideas like endogamous marriage and métissage that have distinct...


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