In December, the Malian government announced that it was withdrawing a proposed sexual education textbook for adolescents. The plans for the textbook had evoked opposition from Muslim leaders in Mali, including Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (French acronym HCIM) – Dicko asserted that by including a chapter on sexual orientation, the textbook was promoting homosexuality. In early January, the government announced the abandonment of the initiative. (It’s worth noting that Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders beyond Dicko, were also unhappy with the textbook.)
The incident feels like a replay, in miniature, of the 2009-2011 controversy over reforms to the family code – an episode that also saw Dicko and others successfully pressuring politicians into backtracking. Both the textbook and the family code struggles reveal the power of Muslim clerics and constituencies as lobby groups. The textbook episode also surprises me a bit in that you would think Malian politicians and bureaucrats would have seen the backlash coming given the way the family code debate played out.
There are real limits to the clerics’ political influence, of course. Dicko supported President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta when he ran and won in 2013, but Keïta won re-election in August 2018 despite a public falling out with Dicko and another prominent cleric, the Chérif of Nioro. So clerics don’t necessarily get to choose who gets elected. And it seems highly unlikely that Mali will see a cleric win the presidency, or even seriously try for it, any time soon. (Some of the reason for that has do with continuity in the political elite, a dynamic I discuss here).
Nevertheless, the lobbying power is formidable. And perhaps out of a desire to reinforce that power, Dicko kept going even after the textbook was withdrawn. On December 23, Dicko led – or perhaps eagerly accepted to lead, depending on how you read events – a demonstration in Mali’s capital Bamako. It is worth noting the presence of opposition politicians at the event, but even their attendance does not yet convince me that Dicko will be able to translate lobbying influence into electoral power. In any case, for now it seems the clerics get to draw red lines on key policy issues perceived to affect Islamic morality in Mali.