International media coverage of Mali tends to focus on the Islamists in the north and the politicians and soldiers in the south. One topic that gets less coverage than it deserves is religious leaders in the south and their attitudes toward Mali’s crises. Sheikh Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council, has drawn some attention (French) for his role in dialogue with the Islamist faction Ansar al Din. And some scholars of Mali have urged attention to Sheikh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara and the “other Ancar Dine” – which, Dr. Brian Peterson writes, “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.” If we want to understand Mali, we must try to understand these figures.
In that spirit I was interested to read a recent interview (French) with Sheikh Haidara, who also serves as vice-president of the High Islamic Council. Some key points from the interview:
- Haidara’s frank expression of disgust with southern Malian politics: “There is no Mali. Who represents Mali? To whom can one address oneself today?…So long as [the president, the prime minister, and the soldiers] do not get along, even if the Economic Community of West African States and France come, it won’t help because there is no Mali.”
- His pessimism about negotiations with northern Islamists: “I can say that we have reached our limit in these negotiations. I did not go to the north. It is our [Council's] President Dicko who went there. But unfortunately, the crisis still continues. Even if we don’t want war, our country is compelled to do it. May God help us to defeat them.”
- While affirming his good relations with Dicko, Haidara discusses a “short period of stormy but fruitful discussions” among leaders within the Council when Haidara and others were pressuring Dicko to denounce the northern Islamists and their behavior publicly. Haidara also discusses differences between Sufis and “Wahhabis” (with whom he identifies Dicko) in Mali. He touches on the creation of a new organization, the Group of Religious Leaders of Mali, which Haidara will lead. Worth noting is Dicko’s response (French) to the interview where he too stresses that there is no “rivalry” between himself and Haidara but rather “mutual respect.”
The interview with Haidara covers other topics as well, including the history of his Ancar Dine and the difficulties that sharing a name with an armed Islamist group has brought his followers in 2012. For readers literate in French, I highly recommending looking at the interview. And for more on Haidara, I recommend looking at Dr. Benjamin Soares’ Islam and the Prayer Economy, which features a lengthy discussion of Haidara.