After mass protests by conservative Muslims against proposed changes to Mali’s family code, President Amadou Toumani Toure refused to sign the law parliament had passed and instead sent it back to parliament for revision.
IRIN gives us an idea of where things stand: Muslim groups are happy with Toure’s move and have temporarily halted the protests, a local leader reports that officials in rural areas do not want to “wake old demons” in what now stands as a decades-long controversy over personal law, and at least one parliamentarian told IRIN he sees no need to revise the code. The bill in fact contains hundreds of provisions, but only a few are controversial, including ones that only offer state recognition to secular marriages and proposals to establish gender equality in marraige. All told, however, it looks like Toure will get the compromise he signaled to parliament that he wants them to produce.
It may be a controversial opinion, but I see this debate as a part of democracy, not a violation of it. That puts me at odds with the views expressed by Cameron Duodo, who writes in the Guardian that Islam is almost incompatible with human rights.
Touré’s position…illustrates just how difficult it is to try to run a modern, secular state in countries with large Islamic populations. Anything that challenges the social norms of the conservative Muslim elements is turned into a religious cause: Mali’s new law, for instance, was described by some of the demonstrators as “an insult to the Koran.” That kills argument stone dead.
Duodo cites threats of violence by Mali’s conservative Muslims, something I have not seen in the reporting and a stance that does not seem to be the dominant position among the conservatives, but if true that would be a blow to the conservatives’ credibility as participants in democracy. In any case, the politicization of religion in itself is not antidemocratic or antimodern in my eyes – if it is, then King and Gandhi were antidemocratic and antiomodern. The desire to block reforms designed to help women might be repugnant to some, but that does not mean Mali is headed toward theocracy. The free exercise of democracy – which certainly extends to mass protests and organizing constituents to pressure elected officials into making policy changes – can include all kinds of outcomes.
As for the idea of a “modern” and “secular” state, those are loaded terms that don’t necessarily have much to do with democracy. We’ll see what outcome the Malian parliament delivers, but I am not sure that a defeat of the family code as written will prove that Mali’s “Islamic backlash” banishes it outside the sphere of “modernity” – whatever that means.