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
Briefing 104 / Africa

Mali: Last Chance in Algiers

As the last phase of negotiations resumes on 20 November, the Algeria-led talks between the Malian government and the armed groups in the north should not be rushed as they offer a unique opportunity for a sustainable peace agreement.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

I. Overview

As northern Mali experiences renewed violence, peace negotiations in Algiers offer a unique opportunity to resolve the crisis. But after almost two months of negotiations, peace remains a distant hope. The Malian government and participating political armed groups have struggled to find common ground. Influential radical groups that are absent from the negotiating table are tempted to resort to violence to derail the process. Conflict resolution will require reconciliation of competing interests regarding security in the Sahara, organisation of the Malian state structure and local balance of power between divided communities in the north. In the face of armed clashes, it is tempting for mediators to move quickly to achieve a deal that would only guarantee security in the short term. But rushing the process will not help. Time is needed to build the foundations of sustainable peace.

After months of deadlock, Algeria arranged international mediation that had long been handicapped by institutional rivalries. The mediation team led by Algeria should maintain this momentum and take the time necessary to build broad consensus for a future agreement. The document that serves as a basis for the drafting of a final agreement is a useful first step, but it offers solutions that have shown serious limitations in the past. It presents the crisis as a centre-periphery conflict without acknowledging the divides within northern communities. It does not provide for political and security institutions that would ensure equitable access to resources and responsibilities for all communities.

All actors involved in trying to resolve the crisis must learn from the mistakes of previous agreements, such as a lack of funds to ensure quick implementation; weak international guarantee mechanisms that did not fulfil their early warning role; and the neglect of the local balance of power in the north due to the focus on relations between the state and the northern regions. On the security front, the integration of former rebels into the armed forces generated a lot of frustration across the board.

During the last few weeks, northern Mali has experienced resurgence in violence, in particular because of jihadi activities and clashes between political armed groups, in violation of the May 2014 ceasefire. In the context of a worrying increase in attacks on the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), it is tempting to strengthen the security response. However, the best option remains to try for a realistic, sustainable agreement. In Bamako, the shock caused by the Kidal debacle in May 2014 has not entirely faded away. Radical nationalist groups have not ruled out the military solution with support from international forces.

As the last phase of negotiations opens on 20 November in a climate of distrust, much remains to be done. Any further stalemate in the discussions will give rise to prejudice in both parties. No one wants to rush the signing of an incomplete agreement. Mali’s international partners, who are the future political and financial guarantors of the deal, should not condone a flawed agreement. Failure would also jeopardise Algeria’s laudable efforts to stabilise the region. On the governmental front, the longer public administration remains absent from the north, the more difficult it will be to fully restore the state’s presence. Meanwhile, insecurity in the north is undermining the political and diplomatic influence gained by the Azawad Movements Coalition, due to their victory over the army in Kidal.

To all actors involved in the negotiations, in particular their leader, Algeria:

  • take the time necessary to conduct the negotiations and in the meantime, find an interim agreement focusing exclusively on strengthening the ceasefire, for example through increased mixed patrols;
     
  • address conflict both within the northern communities, and between these communities and the state, in order to establish political and security institutions that ensure a fair and acceptable distribution of resources and political responsibilities; and
     
  • agree to hold popular consultations prior to finalisation of the agreement, and provide for formal endorsement through a vote by an extraordinary session of the Malian parliament and/or a vote in the regions concerned.

To the mediation team (Algeria, MINUSMA, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, EU, Mauritania, Niger and Chad):

  • provide international guarantees to ensure funding and implementation of the agreement, including an international mechanism to manage donor funds jointly with the relevant local authorities, and an early warning and rapid reaction system in the event of a derailment of the peace process; and
     
  • prepare the international mediation team to become a contact group responsible for enforcement of the agreement, based in Bamako and the northern regions, once the negotiations are completed.

Dakar/Brussels, 18 November 2014

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).