Of the insurgent factions that have wrested control over northern Mali from the central government, and effectively partitioned the country, Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) has stolen the spotlight. Led by the wily Tuareg rebel Iyad ag-Ghali, and aiming to impose shari’a law in Mali, this group has come to epitomize the northern revolt.
But there is another “Ansar Dine” in Mali, and one that is far more representative of the kind of Islam that most Malian Muslims practice. Although this grassroots movement has over one million followers, it rarely makes the news – at least not the kind of news that ag-Ghali’s Islamist militia made in seizing Timbuktu. And yet in the past decade, the charismatic preacher of this other Ansar Dine, Shaykh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has emerged as Mali’s most popular religious leader. Consistently preaching messages of unity, peace, tolerance, moderation, and moral renewal, he unequivocally opposes the establishment of an Islamic state and shari’a law in Mali. Clearly, we have a tale of two namesakes that stand for very different things.
Thus, it seems an obvious question to ask: What is the place of religion in the current political crisis in Mali?
Now, we have noted the secular nature of the MNLA, and the lack of any religious content among the putschists. But, as the Islamists of Iyad ag-Ghali have promulgated their theocratic intentions, with their sinister black flag, and the unconfirmed reports of rather ghoulish behavior vis-à-vis non-Salafists, we might take a moment to revisit the crisis through the lens of religion in Mali. This also provides a subtle corrective to the overblown reporting on the place of Islam and Islamism in this otherwise peaceful and tolerant country.
So who is Shaykh Haidara and why does he serve as a compelling counterpoint to Iyad ag-Ghali? The leader of Ansar Dine rose to prominence following the coup of 1991, which overthrew Moussa Traoré. This new era of multi-party democracy then opened the floodgates to freedom of expression, as radio stations, newspapers, and civil society organizations proliferated across Mali. It also saw an explosion in the number of Islamic nongovernmental organizations and religious associations. Within this context, Haidara saw his popularity skyrocket, as audio taped sermons, radio programs, and videos have broadcasted his distinctive voice and religious messages across the country.
For Malian Muslims looking for spiritual, moral and even practical guidance, “Wulibali,” as Malians affectionately call him, is the man “who speaks the undeniable truth.” Preaching in the lingua franca of Bamana, Haidara advocates for a Malian Islamic tradition independent of Arabic language and culture. Politically, he has used his platform to deliver blunt critiques of government corruption and forms of social injustice, while weighing in on important issues, such as the new family code.
Since the coup, Haidara has made it clear that his movement has “nothing to do” with the militant group of Iyad ag-Ghali that has taken Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao and has threatened to impose shari’a law. He refers to it as a “a criminal association that kills and pillages.” He states: “We don’t need their shari’a. We have been Muslim here for centuries. We don’t need their new Islam that they are bringing to impose among us…. Mali is a secular country. The shari’a is for Muslims. But here in Mali, we live with Christians, we live with Jews, and we live with animists. We are all Malians together here…. We are not in agreement with the shari’a of Iyad. We reject it.” And when Haidara speaks, Malians listen.
Yet a quick web search for “Ansar Dine,” yields pages of stories about the Islamist militia led by Iyad ag-Ghali, and how Salafists are taking over northern Mali and setting their sights on the entire country. Indeed, the news media has gotten carried away with a narrative of inexorable Islamist radicalization. For these reasons, it is high time that we place the religious dimensions surrounding the current political crisis in their proper context.
Mali is at the far moderate end of the spectrum of Islamic societies. Talk to Malian Muslims about Islam today, and they will likely say something about peace, tolerance and unity. Therefore, the brand of Islam being advocated by the Islamists in the north simply does not mirror what the vast majority of Malian Muslims value in their religion. In fact, most Malians are loosely affiliated with one of the major Sufi brotherhoods, such as the Tijaniyya, Hamawiyya or Qadiriyya. However, there are many Malians who simply identify themselves as “Sunni,” or ahl al-Sunna (which non-reformists label as “Wahhabi”), usually indicating that they belong to the wider reform movement. These reformists state that the only real difference between them and Sufis is that they pray with “arms crossed” and their wives wear veils. Otherwise, many of them participate in community-level Sufi rituals and celebrations. In other words, the boundaries between reformists and Sufis are not quite as rigid as outside observers might think.
Cutting across these Sufi brotherhoods and reformist groups, there are the new media stars, such as Haidara, who draw followers from a wide range of affiliations. And many Malian Muslims do not hold themselves exclusively to these institutional groupings, and in fact move rather freely and promiscuously among them, gleaning insights and finding direction wherever they are to be found.
Furthermore, Islamic practices in Mali continue to be profoundly shaped by an underlying animist substratum. In the southern parts of the country, these pre-Islamic customs are called Bamanaya. In certain localities, people draw deeply on these indigenous customs for healing or bringing the rain. And even Muslim preachers, such as Haidara, draw extensively on Bamana idioms, proverbs, and a kind of Malian common sense. Indeed, for Malian Muslims, rather than looking to the Arab world for direction, they look to their own rich cultural heritage. We can see this today in current concerns over the safety of Timbuktu’s libraries and manuscript holdings and evocations of the city’s traditions of tolerance.
Timbuktu has been central in the wider propagation of the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood, with its long local history of Muslim scholars opposing jihad. Thus, even in the north, which has been posited as the more “radical” region, a Sufi-animist substratum among the Songhay, Tuareg, Bella and so forth has deeply influenced Muslim religious life. This has meant a more expanded role for women in public life than one might expect, and the persistence of customs, such as ritual music and dance – and even a gender reversal in veiling practices among the Tuareg – that do not usually conform to the normative traditions of Islam being enforced by Salafists.
Certainly, things have changed in recent years, partly stemming from Saudi patronage, usually in the building of mosques or madrasas, but also due to the activities of Muslim missionaries, such as Pakistanis belonging to the Tablighi Jama’at. We should also add, however, that the U.S. “war on terror” in the region, and wider Islamophobic discourses, have not helped, and have very likely served as rallying devices for reformist leaders. According to recent reports, reformists have grown in number, but not dramatically so. In many regions, Malian Muslims have flirted with the “dawa,” but then have simply drifted back to their original religious communities.
In the more important religious centers of Nioro du Sahel, Djenne and Timbuktu, the most powerful religious authorities continue to be those linked to the Sufi brotherhoods, despite the presence of reformists. And while there are small pockets of ahl al-Sunna in rural areas, peasants generally remain tied to syncretic forms of Islam that draw heavily on pre-Islamic practices and beliefs. In short, from the perspective of popular modes of religious belonging, there is very little reason to anticipate any kind of grassroots enthusiasm for the prospects of Salafist variants of Islam, particularly when imposed through violence and intimidation.
There is another reason for this: Malians have a long history of resisting jihads and attempts at forced conversion. This is not to say that in the long run jihads always failed in spreading Islam. The nineteenth-century Muslim scholar and state-builder El Hajj Umar Tall left an enduring legacy in the region, despite the resistance that his wars provoked, particularly in the Bamana heartland. However, the historical and anthropological literature is replete with cases of Malians resisting the efforts of Muslim states and preachers seeking to impose Islam on them.
Malian peasants have generally refused to accept forced conversion efforts, whether by firebrand preachers or state-builders. They cite the “No Compulsion” verse from the Qur’an, as one elderly informant stated: “On the path of Allah, there is no need for forcing Islam on people. After the descent of the Quran, Allah said that there is no more compulsion in religion. This cannot be done.” Later, there were efforts by “Wahhabis” at imposing reformist ideas on rural Muslims. Once the “Wahhabis” showed their intolerance by criticizing Sufi holy men, engaging in street battles over the correct way to pray, defiling the tombs of saints, and generating “conflict” (fitna) between Muslims, they were rejected.
For these reasons, local imams and ordinary Muslims have stated that they don’t need any foreigners coming to tell them how to conduct their religious lives. Thus, when Malian Muslims hear about the violent efforts of Iyad ag-Ghali and other Salafists linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they see no religious legitimacy or theological rationale for their wars. They are already Muslim, so there is no justification for bringing war to Muslim communities. They see the northern jihadists as warlords aimed at pillaging Malian people and lands for personal gain, while using Islam as an ideological tool to manipulate and dominate vulnerable people.
In this light, it is no coincidence that ag-Ghali chose to name his Islamist militia Ansar Dine. The Tuareg rebel leader is well aware of Haidara’s organization, and he is also au courant that this other Ansar Dine is the far more popular one. Is ag-Ghali trying to highjack the movement, or sow confusion while playing on Malians’ desperation? So far, ag-Ghali’s armed group has pursued its goals through violence and intimidation. But in recent days, it has stepped up a kind of hearts and minds campaign, distributing food and medicine. This isn’t fooling anyone, at least not in the south.
In the past few days in Bamako, Muslim leaders, including prominent reformists and Sufis, unanimously denounced the Islamists in the north. Although they have sought to reign in any sort of overtly bellicose rhetoric, and kept the emphasis on peace, their condemnations have been strong. They stated that Mali would not accept foreigners imposing their Salafist kind of Islam on Malians by force of arms. And in a press conference, Shaykh Haidara repeated his message of tolerance: “We do not know this Islam advocated by these people. Those who kill and say that they want to act in the name of Islam are not really [Muslims]…. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.”
Outside of the mosques, there has been an active mobilization of civil society organizations, including numerous women’s groups, the hunters’ associations, and urban youth. And the interim president Diouncounda Traore has threatened “total war” against the northern insurgents. We can only hope that the saber-rattling in Bamako will not escalate into a full-blown conflagration in the north, and that the Islamists come to their senses in hearing religious authorities calling for Muslim and Malian unity. In the meantime, as outside observers, we might look beyond ag-Ghali’s statements about holy war, or stories on the potential “Talibanization” of Mali, which ultimately serve to obfuscate the realities of Malian Muslim societies. We might push past the prevailing jihad-centric narratives, in finding that we too embrace Haidara’s vision of a tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic society, while rejecting the vision of intolerance currently threatening northern Mali.
Brian J. Peterson is an associate professor of history at Union College (NY). His recent book is Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960 (Yale University Press, 2011).