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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
Report 201 / Africa

Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform

Mali and its international partners need to seize the moment for national dialogue to forestall renewed political and security crises.

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Executive Summary

For the population of northern Mali, the feeling of being “liberated” by the French military intervention launched on 11 January 2013 is real. The sudden, but clearly well-prepared intervention, which received widespread support in Mali, West Africa and beyond, ended the offensive by jihadi groups that the Malian army had been unable to repel. France also took the opportunity to try and destroy al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces. Although Mali is in a better place than a few months back, sporadic fighting in the north continues and formidable threats to security, stability and the coexistence of the country’s various communities remain. The authorities in Bamako, regional organisations and the UN, which is preparing to deploy a stabilisation mission, must quickly agree on a strategy for the resolution of the crisis that provides security, protects civilians, promotes an inclusive inter-Malian dialogue, reestablishes state authority in the north and sees peaceful, credible elections.

Mali descended into turmoil at the beginning of 2012 when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) chased the Malian army out of the north and demanded independence for this vast part of the country. With its roots in the Algerian civil war, AQIM has established itself in northern Mali over the last decade, building local alliances that allowed it to significantly weaken both the state and the MNLA and resulted in armed jihadi groups – Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – taking control of the north in June 2012. This and the coup in Bamako on 21 March 2012 brought the country to its knees. A laboriously prepared Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) plan to deploy an African force was finally, though reluctantly, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012.

The sudden jihadi offensive towards the centre of the country in January 2013 proved suicidal. The jihadi groups did not anticipate France’s strong military response, following a request from interim President Dioncounda Traoré. The Malian army itself did nothing more than accompany the French forces that took the three most important towns in the north, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. French and Chadian troops entered the northernmost Kidal region without the Malians, less to reconquer it for the Malian state than to pursue AQIM combatants into their sanctuaries, destroy stocks of arms, ammunition, fuel and food supplies, and “finish the job” in the context of a declared war against terrorism. Whether or at what point it will be possible to declare the capacities of jihadi groups sufficiently reduced to avoid exposing the civilian population and the forces of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to terrorist reprisal attacks is unclear.

Now as much as before the French intervention, a solution to the crisis will only be sustainable if it combines political and military measures. The north remains very insecure and the state is absent from the Kidal region, where the MNLA claims control. Mali’s army is fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs who are indiscriminately accused of collusion with the enemy. The military action in the north has strengthened the president’s authority, but the ex-junta retains influence and civilian political actors look incapable of mobilising citizens to take the country’s destiny into their hands. The government has announced that presidential elections will be held in July, although conditions – technical, political, security and psychological – for a genuine vote look unlikely to be met.

Even if French troops remain and AFISMA is rehatted as a UN stabilisation mission – which currently appear probable – the interim authorities, political actors and civil society face an immense political challenge. Political dialogue in Bamako, zero tolerance for atrocities by members of security forces, intercommunal dialogue and the redeployment of the state in the north are essential. Elections must be held soon, but not at any cost. The work of reconciliation should begin immediately. So too should the provision of basic social and economic services in the north, so as to facilitate the gradual return of thousands of internally displaced and refugees. The radicalisation of public opinion is a major risk, especially during the election campaign, and firm action by Malian leaders and institutions should aim to prevent people lumping together rebels, terrorists and drug traffickers with all Tuaregs and Arabs.

A focus on terrorism alone also risks distracting from the north’s real problems. The roots of the crisis lie much more in corruption and bad governance than they do in the terrorist threat, the Tuareg issue or even the north-south divide. The international community must insist that Malian leaders assume responsibility for tackling these problems. The most reasonable and realistic way for the state to regain its presence across Mali and maintain lasting security is to find a compromise between the representatives of all communities, ensure even the most isolated populations feel included, and take into account the vulnerability of vast border areas to the flow of weapons and armed groups.

The most important and immediate challenge for regional organisations and the UN is to align their positions on the political process. First, they must convince the MNLA that its interests are best served by renouncing its armed struggle and discussing how its representatives and supporters can participate in a dialogue on the north’s real problems. Secondly, they should persuade Bamako that it should not impose so many pre-conditions on talks – such as, for instance, requiring the MNLA to immediately disarm – that it closes the door to dialogue, or even discrete contacts, with MNLA representatives. ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), the UN Security Council, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and France must all send the same message to the authorities in Bamako and the leaders of those armed groups in the north. Even this would not resolve everything, however. Without new regional security mechanisms involving all the countries of North and West Africa, any victory over terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking in Mali will only be temporary.

Dakar/Brussels, 11 April 2013

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).