Assaulting tolerance in Mali

The destruction of religious shrines by hard-line fighters is a blow to pluralism in North Africa.

Once an example of democracy in the region, Malians have grown tired of corruption [AFP]

The nation of Mali, and much of Sahelian West Africa, has long-standing moderate Muslim practices dating back to the ninth century. This broadminded intellectual, spiritual and cultural tradition is being undermined by a new wave of religious colonialism emanating from outside of the region, an especially violent and intolerant form of fundamentalist Islam. The hijacking of a secular separatist movement in northern Mali by outside Islamist groups, and the subsequent loss of human life, restrictions on basic freedoms, and destruction of historical monuments that comprise a UNESCO world heritage site, is the latest and most egregious act of aggression-cum-religion in this embattled country.

Having had elected governments for 20 years, Mali was considered a shining light of democracy in West Africa and a darling of Western donors. This facade came crashing down with a coup d’etat on March 22, launched by a group of young military lieutenants who were frustrated with the government’s inadequate support for the army in its ongoing fight against separatist Tuareg rebels in the North, a group that had become emboldened by a recent infusion of trained Tuareg fighters and heavy arms leaving Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.

“Unlike its tenuous tradition of multiparty democracy, Mali now risks losing a much deeper and culturally ingrained custom of moderate Islamic practice and religious tolerance.”

But the flagging military fight in the North offers only a partial explanation of the Malian coup. Mali’s population had grown weary of democracy’s promises, with multi-party elections yielding limited development gains, and corruption was on rise in recent years. Absent this frustration, the Malian population may have more vigorously resisted a coup that occurred a mere month before the then president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was ready to step down and democratic elections were to be held. 

A deeper loss

Political scientists, and Western donors who have supported governance efforts in Africa, will long debate the depth (or lack thereof) of democracy in Mali and the reasons for its fragility at that moment. Unlike its tenuous tradition of multi-party democracy, Mali now risks losing a much deeper and culturally ingrained custom of moderate Islamic practice and religious tolerance. This would be a loss to the entire Muslim World and the global community.

Things have gone from bad to worse in Mali since the March coup. Seizing on the power vacuum in the South, Tuareg separatist rebels, led by the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), quickly overran the Malian military and captured the major cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in the North, culminating in the declaration of an independent state known as Azawad on April 6. In the South, the situation started to look a little better when the putschist regime, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, agreed to yield power to a transitional government following the squeeze put on them by sanctions imposed by the regional block known as ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). However, the transitional Malian president, Dioncounda Traore, has been in Paris since he was attacked and beat up by a mob on May 21 that stormed the presidential palace. Now it is even more transparent that it is the military putschists that are incompetently running the southern part of the country.

In the North, the secular MNLA has been ousted by the Islamist Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ansar Dine, whose sole stated aim is to impose sharia law in the North of the country, has unleashed a storm of religious intolerance on this once religiously broadminded and moderate Muslim region. Women have been whipped for not wearing the veil, music banned in this deeply lyrical society, the tombs of ancient Muslim saints destroyed, and the famous Timbuktu university and library (containing ancient manuscripts) is under threat.

“In addition to the brutal dismemberment of religious tolerance and local expression in this part of world, this region is on the brink of a major famine due to turmoil created by recent power shifts in the North of Mali.”

What the outside world needs to understand is that Islam in Mali has long been tolerant and inflected with local traditions. Religious practices have generally not restricted women from economic and political activity, or social interaction. Until recently, very few Malian women wore veils. Not unlike most world religions which tend to absorb local practices as they spread, Islam in Mali often took on mystical elements, ancestor veneration and certain indigenous animist beliefs. Relations between the 90 per cent Muslim majority and religious minorities (mainly Christian and traditional animist) were also generally amicable. In fact, it was not unusual to find adherents to various faiths in one family or for practitioners of one religion to attend the important religious ceremonies of another, such as marriages, baptisms or funerals. 

Plenty of responsibility

It is not a stretch to suggest that Islam in Mali, and much of West Africa, had a lot to offer the rest of the Muslim world, and the global community more generally, in terms of its indigenous expression, tolerance of other religions, and freedoms accorded to women. Sadly, this rich tradition is being hijacked in the North of Mali by Ansar Dine and AQIM, groups that have significant ties to outside interests and funding. Make no doubt about it, this is not a divinely endorsed action, or the spiritual epiphany of an impoverished population, but externally financed religious colonial aggression designed to supplant and destroy local desires and practices.

In addition to the brutal dismemberment of religious tolerance and local expression in this part of world, this region is on the brink of a major famine due to turmoil created by recent power shifts in the North of Mali. 

We all have a role to play in sorting out this problem. Those foreigners with deep pockets who are financing AQIM and Ansar Dine ought to think carefully about the harm they are inflicting on innocent people in this part of the world, most of whom are Muslim. The Malian people must place increasing pressure on the current putschist military regime in Bamako to completely step aside and allow for the return of freely elected civilian rulers. The international community, including ECOWAS and the UN, must send peacekeepers to northern Mali to stop the killing of innocent people and the destruction of cultural artefacts, to make possible the delivery food aid, and to facilitate a democratic referendum on the future of this region of the country.

William G Moseley is professor and chair of geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. He has worked and conducted research in Mali, on and off, for the past 25 years.