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Religious Peace and Tolerance in Mali: The Other Ansar Dine

Despite media narratives of “Talibanisation”, the Islam most Malians practice is based on unity, peace and toleration.
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A mosque in the village of San, Mali. Photograph by Carsten ten Brink.

According to much Western news media, Mali is on the verge of being overrun by jihadists as an Islamist tsunami crashes down on a vulnerable population. Amongst the insurgent factions that have wrested control of northern Mali and effectively partitioned the country, Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) has stolen much of the spotlight. Led by the wily Tuareg rebel Iyad ag-Ghali, with the aim of imposing Sharia law, this group has come to epitomise the northern revolt in much coverage of the events.

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. This other, grassroots Ansar Dine rarely makes the news – at least not the kind news that ag-Ghali’s Islamist militia made in seizing Timbuktu. This is despite the fact it has over one million followers and that, in the past decade, its charismatic preacher Sheikh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has emerged as Mali's most popular religious leader.

Consistently preaching messages of unity, peace, tolerance and moral renewal, Haidara unequivocally opposes the establishment of an Islamic state and Sharia law.

Ansar Dine vs. Ansar Dine

Sheikh Haidara, now leader of the peaceful Ansar Dine, rose to prominence in the 1990s during the new era of multi-party democracy and freedom of expression in which radio stations, newspapers, and civil society organisations proliferated across Mali. Haidara saw his popularity skyrocket as audio-taped sermons, radio programmes, and videos broadcasted his distinctive voice and religious messages.

Malian Muslims look to Wulibali (“the man who speaks the undeniable truth”), as he is affectionately referred to, for spiritual, moral and even practical guidance. Preaching in the lingua franca of Bambara, 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.

Since the coup, Haidara has made it clear that his Ansar Dine movement has “nothing to do” with the militant group of Iyad ag-Ghali. He refers to the rebel group as “a criminal association that kills and pillages”. He states: “We don’t need their Sharia. We have been Muslim here for centuries…. Mali is a secular country…. 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 Sharia of Iyad. We reject it.” And when Haidara speaks, Malians listen.

Yet a quick web search for “Ansar Dine” yields pages of stories about ag-Ghali’s Islamist militia. And the news media has gotten carried away with a narrative of inexorable Islamist radicalisation. It is high time that we place the religious dimensions surrounding the current political crisis in their proper context.

Malian Islam

Islam in Mali is a long way from the radical conservative Wahhabism that developed in Saudi Arabia. Talk to Malian Muslims about Islam today and they will likely talk of peace, tolerance and unity.

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. Many Sunnis say that the only real difference between them and Sufis is that they pray with their “arms crossed” and that their wives wear veils – the boundaries between the groups is not nearly as rigid as outsiders might presume. Furthermore, cutting across these divides, there are the new media stars, such as Haidara, who draw followers from a wide range of affiliations.

Islamic practices in Mali also continue to be profoundly shaped by an underlying animist substratum. In certain localities, people draw deeply on indigenous, pre-Islamic customs known in the south as Bamanaya for healing or bringing the rain. Some Muslim preachers, such as Haidara, draw extensively on Bambara idioms, proverbs, and a traditional kind of Malian commonsense.

Even in the north, which has been posited as the more “radical” region, a Sufi and animist substratum among the Songhay, Tuareg, Bella and other groups has deeply influenced Muslim religious life. This has led to women having more extensive roles in public life than in other Muslim majority countries, 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 Salafi literalists.

Things have, however, changed in recent years, partly stemming from Saudi patronage in the building of mosques or madrasas, partly due to the activities of missionaries from other schools and practices of Islam. The US’ “war on terror” in the region and wider Islamophobic discourses have not helped either, and have likely helped rallying calls by leaders trying to reform Malian Islam in a radical conservative direction. According to recent reports, these reformists have grown in number, although not dramatically so.

Keeping the faith

In the more important religious centres 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.

Timbuktu, for example, has been central to the wider propagation of the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood with its long local history of Muslim scholars opposing jihad. 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 little reason to anticipate grassroots enthusiasm for Salafi literalist variants of Islam, particularly when imposed through violence and intimidation.

There is also another reason for this: Malians have a long history of resisting jihads and attempts at forced conversion whether by firebrand preachers or state-builders. Peasants cite the “No Compulsion” verse from the Quran, and, 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.”

For these reasons, local imams and ordinary Muslims have stated that they do not need foreigners coming to tell them how to conduct their religious lives. When Malian Muslims hear about the violent efforts of ag-Ghali and other Salafi literalists linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they see no religious legitimacy or theological rationale for their wars. 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.

Deeper understanding

In this light, it is no coincidence that ag-Ghali chose to name his recently formed Islamist militia Ansar Dine. The Tuareg rebel leader is well aware of Haidara’s organisation and of the fact Haidara’s Ansar Dine is the far more popular one.

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 in distributing food and medicine. But this is not 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 rein in any sort of overtly bellicose rhetoric, and kept the emphasis on peace, their condemnations have been strongly stated. They insisted that Mali would not accept foreigners imposing their Salafi literalist kind of Islam on Malians by force of arms. And in a press conference, Haidara repeated his message of tolerance, saying: “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.”

With a deeper understanding of Mali’s religious context, it is clear that stories about the potential “Talibanisation” of the country ultimately serve to obfuscate the realities of Malian Muslim societies. We ought to push past prevailing jihad-centric narratives and give appropriate attention to Haidara’s popular vision of a tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic society.

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