DAKAR — A cartoon of an early 20th-century Senegalese Muslim leader has sparked a nationwide uproar, with the vignette criticized by civilians and political leaders alike. The Paris-based African news magazine Jeune Afrique published a cartoon of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, last week in which a passing Westerner asks why the traditionally robed leader is "wearing a dress." The magazine formally apologized for the caricature over the weekend and removed it from the website, although it is still visible on the cartoonist's Twitter profile.
The caricature poked fun at ongoing controversy in Senegal over men carrying handbags, a new fashion trend pioneered by the young singer Wally Seck. Religious leaders — including representatives of the Sufi Muslim Mouride Brotherhood, whose adherents make up around 40% of Senegal's population — harshly criticized his fashion choice and called it "effeminate," with newspapers publishing homophobic insults. Homosexuality is outlawed in Senegal and many other African countries.
Parisian newspaper Le Parisien reports that Seck pointed to American artists such as Kanye West wearing similar male handbags as proof that he was not "promoting" homosexuality. The Jeune Afrique cartoon, seeking to show how a traditional Senegalese robe could be caricatured as effeminate by a Westerner, drew fierce criticism from the Mourides and from the Senegalese government itself.
The intense backlash that forced Jeune Afrique to pull the cartoon of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, considered a "national symbol" by the current government, also led Seck to apologize to his fans and promise not to wear handbags again. The debacle caught the attention of the international press, with the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa commenting in an analysis piece that the Senegal case presents the expansion of a wave of religiously influenced crackdowns on freedom of expression in Africa and the Middle East.
Unlike Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that incensed the Muslim world, the uproar in Senegal was sparked by a drawing of a revered — yet mortal — religious leader. The freedom of satire grows ever more constrained, even in free and democratic Senegal.