Reputation for peaceful co-existence shattered as the balance of power between moderate and extremist groups shifts
Celeste Hicks, The Guardian, Friday 3 May 2013
Bamako, Mali–There’s a well-known saying in Mali that the country is “98% Muslim, 2% Christian and 100% animist”, with Islam absorbing traditional practices and allowing people to retain connections with their customary spirituality – providing a formula for religious tolerance.
But the recent uprising by radical Islamist groups in the north has shattered this picture of tolerance and cooperation. While most Malians breathed a sigh of relief as the Islamists were pushed back by the French and Chadian intervention, few can rule out a return. And with elections planned for July looking uncertain, some religious leaders are concerned that continuing political failure could lead to extremist ideologies becoming more popular.
“The future of Islam here in Mali rests on many things, and it is threatened,” said Shiekh Thiermo Thiam, head of the Sufi Tidjania sect. “We need a stable government, a functioning democracy and an end to illiteracy so that people can actually read the Qu’ran for themselves. Our Islam needs to continue to be an Islam of tolerance or we will all be pushed towards violence.”
Islam in Mali has historically been moderate and pluralistic, first arriving from the north in the 8th century and co-existing alongside other belief systems such as animism and Christianity. Malians, many of whom are Sufis practicing a mystical, reflective form of worship, were deeply shocked by the reign of the Islamists, which saw them amputating the hands of thieves and stoning to death a young unmarried couple. The ideology of groups such as the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was viewed by most as a foreign import, as most of their leaders were fugitives from the Algerian civil war.
But some Sufi leaders acknowledge that a more conservative form of Islam had already existed in Mali through the growing influence of Wahabi groups, which preach adherence to a fundamental reading of the Qu’ran. The last year has put strain on the unity of the High Islamic council , which represents Mali’s religious institutions at a state level, with Sufi leaders such as Imam Mamadou Diallo from the Torokorobougou mosque in Bamako claiming that it has been taken over by “a group of Salafists”.
Sheikh Usman Haidara, one of Mali’s most popular charismatic Sufi leaders, publicly criticised the Wahabi leader of the council, Mamadou Dicko, for not condemning the Islamists’ destruction of the Sufi saints’ tombs in Timbuktu. “He didn’t react at all, because he’s a Wahabi and they don’t condemn things like that,” he said. Imam Dicko eventually held a press conference to condemn the destruction, but his position appears to have been compromised by having been designated the government’s official mediator with the Islamists.
Mohamedu Diamoutane, secretary general of the council, denied that it was dominated by Wahabis. “There is a deliberate campaign being launched to gnaw away at our tolerant understanding of each other, and the things that people are saying are simply not true. This council is not dominated by Wahabis,” he said.
There have been signs of a growing tension between the religious institutions and state since at least 2009, when some Muslim leaders led a public back-lash against government plans to modernise the country’s family code, bringing thousands onto the streets to reject the “anti-Islamic” proposals which mostly concerned the status of women.
Imam Mamadou Diallo said that, even today, no secular politician has been able to generate that level of popularity. “People want religious leaders more than politicians. Who else could get 50,000 into Bamako’s sports stadium within a few minutes? But I believe religious leaders should not over-step the mark.”
There is clearly some sympathy, particularly in the north, for more conservative Islam. Much of the horror expressed towards the Islamists concerned their use of violence rather than a rejection of their ideas. Research by the Institute of Islamic Strategic Socio-Political Affairs (IISA) showed a growing following in Konna, a small town in central Mali, for the “radical” preacher Amadou Koufa, who reportedly called on his followers to join the jihadists.
And in Gao the fight against Islamists and the growing phenomena of suicide bombings is not over. It’s well known that some nearby villages sympathise with radical Islamic ideals, a legacy of another jihad waged in the 19th century by Sekou Ahmed, who established the Massina empire.
While the most immediate challenges are getting in a UN peacekeeping force to take over from the French and Chadian troops, organising credible elections and firmly re-establishing control of Kidal and Gao, in the coming years the role of religion in the state, the relationship between the north and south and the balance of power between Wahabis and Sufis will become crucial questions.
Malian leaders know this, and have for the first time appointed a minister for religious affairs. Yet, according to ISSA director Usama Butt, progress is slow. “I hope that everything that has happened creates a debate, we have to understand how Islam can play a role in society and it needs to be done through a peaceful and useful dialogue,” he said.