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 fighter from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) stands on his vehicle covered in mud for camouflage outside Anefis, Mali, on 26 August 2015. REUTERS/Souleymane Ag Anara
Briefing 115 / Africa

Mali: Peace from Below?

Hesitant steps toward peace in Mali have been helped by the recent pacts signed in Anefis by pro-government armed groups and by rebel representatives. While not sufficient or without risks, they are rooted in local initiatives and tackle issues left out of June’s Bamako accord. This offers a serious opportunity to put the peace process back on track.

I. Overview

After a summer marked by renewed clashes in northern Mali, a surprising détente began taking shape in October 2015 following a series of talks between leaders of the Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA), the main rebel coalition, and those of the Algiers Platform, the pro-government coalition. For three weeks, negotiations took place in Anefis, the site of recent fighting and a regional hub south west of Kidal. The talks led to several “honour pacts” signed on behalf of the major nomad communities in the region. In Bamako, the pessimism of the past few months is giving way to cautious optimism. This “bottom-up” reconciliation could restart implementation of the Bamako accord signed in June, itself stalled since summer. Nevertheless, these local pacts will have to be carefully monitored as the Anefis process also carries risks, including that of the reestablishment of a militarised political-economic system that was the source of much of the violence in the north.

The Anefis meetings represent a reappropriation by some local actors of a peace process until now largely driven by external partners. There should be no mistaking who took the initiative: these are less “traditional” community leaders than politico-military leaders and businessmen at the head of armed groups. Yet, this is precisely how the Anefis pacts can reinforce the Bamako peace process: by involving major local actors and strengthening their trust in a peace otherwise largely externally imposed. The Anefis meetings have allowed for important questions concerning the north’s politico-military elite to be addressed, including issues of trafficking, power sharing, and intercommunal rivalries. These are sensitive subjects that the negotiations in Algiers were either unwilling or unable to tackle.

The peace process nevertheless remains fragile. The 20 November attack on the Hotel Radisson was a stark reminder of the persistent threat posed by radical groups excluded from the peace process. Indeed, this moment of calm should not be confused with a return to sustainable peace. The current window should be seized as an opportunity to refocus attention on the implementation of the Bamako agreement, not as an end in itself, but rather to allow for genuine change of governance in Mali. A majority of actors, however, privately admit to having given up on this goal. Consequently, the risk remains that Mali could revert back to a pattern of poor governance and violence in the north. To avoid this, Malian parties and their partners should remobilise around an intelligent and ambitious implementation of the Bamako accord that, with time, will allow for a “demilitarisation” of economics and politics in the north. For this to occur, the following measures should be taken:

  • Mali and its main partners, gathered in the extended mediation team, should support local initiatives such as the intercommunal meetings, to allow for the extension of the Anefis process beyond political-military elites. In parallel, they should maintain a right to prosecute important criminals, specifically those involved in arms and drug trafficking, regardless of their participation in the process.
  • The same actors should prioritise demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR). In doing so, Malian parties should adhere to the text of the Bamako accord, specifically concerning the mechanisms for the interim period, and the UN mission, MINUSMA focus on the logistical and political preparation of the DDR process.
  • In Bamako, Malian parties and the international mediation team must clarify each actor’s role in the implementation and follow-up of the peace agreement. They should also restart discussions on the creation of a government of national unity in order to reinforce the peace process and facilitate the implementation of the accord.
  • This period of reduced tensions should, in sum, be seized upon to break with the governance problems of the past: development projects in the north must be accompanied by concrete mechanisms to fight corruption and guarantee that investments benefit local populations, rather than just the elites. The government in turn must cease the politics of division that fuel the “militarisation” of society and threaten the security of the Malian state.

Dakar/Brussels, 14 December 2015

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).