Shi’i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal by Mara A. Leichtman (review)
- Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies
- Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies
- Volume 4, Number 1, 2017
- Additional Information
Mashriq & Mahjar 4, no. 1 (2017), 147-150 ISSN 2169-4435 MARA A. LEICHTMAN, Shi'i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2015). 294 pages, $30.00 paper. REVIEWED BY STEPHEN WILLIAM FOSTER, Independent Scholar, Portland, Oregon; email: email@example.com Ethnography worthy of the name is now a long way from social and cultural description tout court and probably always has been. Issue-oriented description is what postcolonial ethnography calls for, and it is wellrepresented by Mara Leichtman's book. She delineates a dynamic that encompasses Shi'i immigrant Lebanese in Senegal and Senegalese converts to Shi'i Islam from Lebanon. Her stories are a choreography of people and ideas on the move: Lebanese migrants in Senegal and Shi'i Islam recasting Senegalese self-understandings and promoting a developing religiosity. This multi-layered complexity bids us to rethink how we use thematizing abstractions such as migration, autochthony, transnationality and cosmopolitanism and if they can work as descriptors in our interpretations. Leichtman sidesteps the idea of Senegal as part of an Africa produced by terrorism or fundamentalism. Lebanese and Senegalese struggle "to create their own Arab and/or African identity. Is Islam religious or political? Can Islam be Westernized, Arabized, or Africanized? ... [Clan one live a cosmopolitan life betwixt and between these different worlds?" (p. xi). She reflects on "the problematic nature of cosmopolitanism" (p. 12), admittedly without "solving" this and other questions, through a textured ethnography of how Lebanese migrants and Senegalese converts navigate such local/global dilemmas. The subjects of her ethnography do so with considerable delicacy. In her Introduction, Leichtman notes that Dakar has remained a financial center despite neoliberalism and is a "cosmopolitan city" where a "cacophony oflanguages can be heard" (p. 1). Since colonialism's demise, Shi'i Islam has come to represent Lebanese nationalism and stimulated the teaching of Arabic, giving immigrants and Senegalese alike access to Shi'i teachings. In Part I, Leichtman shows that although some Lebanese in Senegal have never been to Lebanon, the establishment of Shi'i Islamic institutes and religious© Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies 2017 148 Mashriq & Mahjar4, no. 1 (2017) centers has strengthened Shi'i Islam among them, aspirants obtaining scholarships to study in Lebanon and Iran. A leading figure in this movement has been the charismatic Shykh al-Zayn who has nurtured a pedagogical approach to Shi'i Islam among Lebanese immigrants as well as among Senegalese: "As Khomeini's ideologies traveled, the Iranian revolution's violence ... [has been] transformed into Muslim pride and Islamic humanitarianism" (p. 7). Political events in Lebanon and Iran impelled Lebanese immigrants to articulate their solidarity with a homeland as well as an ethnicity in Senegal that acknowledges Senegalese nationhood. Theirs is a "both-and" interpolation: they felt obliged to demonstrate their autochthony and reinforce their loyalty to Senegal (p. 141). But there are also tensions: "One man refers to himself as a 'modern Muslim' who drinks, goes dancing and likes women. The shaykh strives to eliminate such sins, not always successfully" (p. 139). Overall, "recent exposure to Shi'i Islam and the transforming subjectivities ... [have been] a result of this newfound knowledge" (p. 119). Part II is "an ethnography of a religious movement" (p. 145). Senegalese gravitate to Shi'i Islam as Lebanese in Senegal develop their religiosity. These two movements synergize one another. French colonialism pursued a sectarian, divide-and-conquer policy that "prevented Muslim unity" (p. 148). In contrast, Shaykh al-Zayn has exercised "his cosmopolitan skills in knowing when to highlight universal Islam over more particular Shi'i learning" (p. 151), effectively muting Sunni-Shi'i sectarianism. Multiple resources and financial assistance allowed a burgeoning pedagogy in Shi'i doctrine, keyed to the reformist (not revolutionary) impetus of Khomeini's charisma. One of the most the interesting issues that Shi'i Islam in Senegal raises is its linkage of conversion as an intellectual project engaged with religious tradition. That encounter has a non-Weberian implication. The traditional and the rational may not here be polarized, as with Weber's protestant ethic; rationalized aspects of Shi'i tradition may promote alternative modernities in the form of...