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Muslim Christmas in Senegal

Saturday, December 24, 2005

DAKAR, Senegal — Hundreds of young men decked with tinsel wander outside Senegal's mosques, hawking plastic Christmas trees. Women pray to Allah on a sidewalk where an inflatable Santa Claus happens to be hanging.

Senegal may be 95 percent Muslim, but it certainly knows it's Christmas. In fact, for this nation of 12 million it's a national holiday.

Blame it on globalization, which has turned the West's yuletide icons into a worldwide commodity. Or the Internet, or Hollywood, or the availability of travel that allows new generations of Senegalese to sample Christmas at close quarters. But mainly, Senegalese revel in the trappings of Christmas because they can and want to.

Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet, but don't generally celebrate the date of his birth. Many Muslim societies discourage Christmas hoopla. But Senegalese say they have a long history of tolerance and coexistence with Christians, so why not share Christmas?

"Officially, we Muslims don't celebrate Christmas. But the Catholics are our neighbors. So, we all celebrate all the religious holidays," said El Hadj Diop, 60, sitting in front of his African antique store.

"We share the same houses, even graveyards," Diop said. "It has been the same for years."

Islam arrived at this western tip of Africa hundreds of years ago, borne across the Sahara by slave and spice traders from the north. French colonialists with Bibles came afterward. Now, many practitioners of both faiths have adapted their religions to local mores.

Few Muslim women in Senegal wear head scarves or cover up in robes. Nightclubs party until dawn, although the drink of choice is more likely juice than booze. Christians and Muslims alike wear "gris-gris," magic charms meant to ward off bad luck.

Unlike in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where images of humans are taboo, Senegalese Muslims paint pictures of their spiritual leaders on the sides of buses.

Most of Senegal's Christians live in the south, far from Dakar, and the capital has only a few churches and nothing resembling a nativity display.

But the government has strung lights across thoroughfares, including one that passes the city's main mosque.

Here "Jingle Bells" lilts from radios as the call to prayer booms from minarets.

Hawkers hang long strands of tinsel over their ears as they wander the streets looking for buyers. Others carry gaudy blowup Santas. An African Santa in a fuzzy white beard sits at a supermarket as tourists snap his picture.

Christians say they welcome the solidarity and repay it by partaking in Islamic holidays.

"People here believe in God; it's what nourishes us and binds us," said Eric Midahuen, a Christian who works in a spectacles store next door to Diop's antiques shop.

"It's our tradition, this cohabitation. When we're born and baptized our Muslim neighbors are there. They help us all the way, even into the grave," said the 40-year-old father of two. "We're all the same before God, who allows us to recognize him in all others."

Diop echoes many of his countrymen in saying Muslim extremists elsewhere are falsely interpreting the Muslim holy book, the Quran, and sullying Islam's reputation.

"The Quran says Muslims mustn't force their religion on others. Aggression has no place in Islam," he says.

Indeed, Senegal is a peaceful oasis among some strife-torn neighbors.

It's a budding democracy under the motto "one people, one goal, one faith," but doesn't decree which faith that should be.

Secularism elsewhere may mean the freedom not to celebrate a religious holiday. In Senegal many interpret it to mean they should celebrate all of them.

"Here in Senegal, it's a secular country. Everyone wants to buy cakes and gifts. We respect Christians and they respect us," says Fatou Mata, 40, a mother of two.

And she faces the yuletide pressures familiar to parents everywhere: "If my kids don't have a present on Christmas, they'll cry."

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