Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality
The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A boy runs in front of a mural that reads "Peace" in Timbuktu, on 24 July 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Report 226 / Africa

Mali: An Imposed Peace?

Fighting recently resumed in Mali, while a peace accord remains a façade. Both sides, with help from international mediators, need to re-open negotiations. They must go beyond prioritising security to include all belligerents and improve access to basic social services, jobs and justice.

Executive Summary

After eight months of negotiations between Malian parties, the government and some armed groups signed an agreement on 15 May 2015 in Bamako. Fighting has resumed, however, in the north and centre of Mali. Crucially, the Azawad Movements Coalition (CMA) has still not signed the agreement. It initialled the text on the eve of the ceremony but demands further discussion before fully accepting it. An agreement without the signature of the main coalition opposing the government is of little value and will likely make disarmament impossible. The mediation team should establish a framework that would allow for further talks and Malian parties should return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity. The UN Security Council and its UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), backed by France, must take a stronger stance against violations of the ceasefire.

All actors bear responsibility for the recent resumption of fighting. A significant part of the Malian political and military leadership still pursues the idea of seeking revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of rebels through military means. There is a real danger that elements within the government try to portray non-signatories to the Bamako deal as spoilers to be dealt with militarily – an option that would have disastrous consequences. The government has problematic ties with groups within the Platform coalition, northern opponents of the CMA that regained control of the town of Menaka on 27 April. Meanwhile, some of the CMA’s demands are unrealistic and it continues to ignore the profound diversity of the northern populations, not all of which support all aspects of the CMA’s agenda. International mediators have imposed their own security agenda and have been too quick to close the door to further talks. Despite weeks of pressure the CMA has refused to sign the peace agreement but the mediators were nonetheless adamant about holding the ceremony on 15 May. During the ceremony, tensions between the Malian president and the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations revealed substantial divergences on the process that should follow the signing.

Although no agreement is perfect, the proposed document has clear shortcomings. It repeats mistakes of the past, encouraging, for example, models of decentralisation and clientelism that have failed to bring peace. Rather than trying to change a deeply flawed political system, it seeks only to strengthen the institutions within it. The Malian parties, who refused to engage in direct dialogue, inherit a document that is written mostly by international mediators and in part reflects the mediators’ own interests. It prioritises the restoration of order and stability rather than aiming to meet a desire for genuine change that runs deep among northern populations. The agreement makes scant mention of issues like the access to basic social services, jobs or justice – concerns at the heart of popular demands. Prioritising security overshadows the need to restore the state’s social function across the Malian territory.

While the signing of the agreement closes the framework of dialogue without being able to include all belligerent parties, renewed fighting over recent weeks threatens parts of the country. The attack on Menaka took place on 27 April following the CMA’s proposal to initial the agreement in exchange for a resumption of talks before signing. The renewed fighting indicates that months of negotiations did not resolve the lack of trust between the parties. Hardliners on both sides appear uninterested in signing an agreement that includes all actors and instead took advantage of the deadlock to relaunch offensives. Neither the presence of MINUSMA nor the threat of sanctions has been sufficient to deter ceasefire violations in late April.

The Platform’s groups, which represent genuine interests in the north, are in part being manipulated by hardliners within the Malian government, who use them as proxies to avoid the Malian army directly engaging in combat. The risks of the conflict spreading are all the more worrying given that other parts of central Mali have been the scene of unprecedented insecurity in recent months. With armed groups becoming increasingly community-based, the resumption of fighting can lead to their further fragmentation and additional civilian casualties. To prevent Mali entering a new cycle of violence despite the signing of the Bamako agreement, political discussion must prevail over diplomatic coercion or military force.

Malians attend Friday prayers at the Djinguereber mosque in the center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Report 249 / Africa

The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality

Settling the place of Islam in Mali’s society and politics is a less visible but longer-term challenge to the state than its rebellious north and stalled peace process. The government should work toward a partnership with religious authorities to enable them to play a stabilising role.

Executive Summary

The 2012 crisis, during which self-proclaimed jihadi armed groups took centre stage, intensified the debate on the role of Islam in Malian society and politics. Although religious leaders have become powerful lobbyists, public perceptions of their influence are often exaggerated. The government faces a dilemma: many Malians want to see greater regulation of religious affairs, but intervention by a weak and discredited state could be counterproductive. The answer lies in a more constructive partnership between political and religious authorities, maintaining the important distinction between the two while accepting that religious leaders have a say in both political matters and conflict resolution and that the government has a role in limiting intolerant and hateful speech, both in sermons and in the media, as well as in regulating the training received by imams.

The 2012 crisis, when armed groups claiming to represent Islam occupied part of northern Mali, exacerbated the concerns of some Malians and Western partners about the role of religion in society. They fear that Islam will become the main source of social norms, threatening their way of life. This concern is heightened by the conflation of two very distinct phenomena: the politicisation of Muslim leaders and the expansion of armed groups in the north, or in other words, the link between religion and violence. Muslim leaders are increasingly and more openly affirming that they have the right and even the duty to intervene in major public debates and to get involved in politics, including by supporting candidates or standing for office themselves.

It is important to distinguish myth from reality and cool down an overheated debate. Religious leaders now undeniably have greater influence over political life and, much like other lobbyists, will advance their point of view by using their important role within society and their capacity to mobilise. However, they have not gained the upper hand in Malian politics. Voters do not systematically follow their instructions and political decisions are sometimes falsely attributed to their influence. Although the religious affairs ministry was created at their request in 2012, it is now seeking to exert some control over a disorganised religious field, to the great displeasure of some Muslim leaders.

Most religious leaders, politicians and civil society representatives deplore problems within the religious sphere and want to see better regulation.

Most religious leaders, politicians and civil society representatives deplore problems within the religious sphere and want to see better regulation. However, opinions differ about the degree of regulation necessary and about who should lead the process. While leaders of the so-called “Malekite” tradition of Islam are calling on the government to take responsibility, those from the so-called “Wahhabi” tradition (a historically inaccurate term but one which Malians use to describe all strands of Islam perceived to be fundamentalist) warn against intrusive government involvement in religious affairs.

A weak and discredited Malian state lacks the legitimacy to intervene constructively in religious affairs. Nor does it have the resources. Regulation could provoke precisely the outcome that the government wants to avoid: association with a state perceived as being in the pay of the West could discredit the official religion and thus contribute to the emergence of informal religions that could contradict official discourse.

A weak and discredited Malian state lacks the legitimacy to intervene constructively in religious affairs.

Should the government nonetheless wish to regulate religious activities, as requested by the religious affairs ministry and many other political and social actors, regulation should be kept to a minimum and religious leaders should play a central role. In other words, the priority should be establishing a partnership between government officials and religious leaders. They could start by working on two areas of consensus: the need to restrict hateful and intolerant speech and improve the training of imams.

Religion is a fact of life in Mali. The aim now should be to ensure it serves as a stabilising force. Religious leaders can help fight extremist ideas, as they did in 2012 when they denounced terrorism as contrary to Islam’s basic values. They can do better than the government or security forces in combatting those who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam. The challenge is how to define and delimit religion’s place in society so that it can play a positive role, especially regarding social regulation and conflict resolution.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 18 July 2017

 

Map of Mali International Crisis Group/KO/Dec2015. Based on UN map no 4231 Rev 3 (March 2013).