Mali’s Family Code: Threats and Debates

Proposed reforms to Mali’s family code have evoked Muslim protests since last summer. At that time, Muslim activists succeeded in preventing the changes from happening. Now the law is back in parliament for consideration and revision, and a prominent imam who broke ranks is facing threats from other Muslims.

He has received threatening phone calls and local Muslim leaders have tried to dismiss him.

[…]In April, the imam of Kati, 15km (9 miles) north-west of the capital, Bamako, wrote a letter to Mali’s High Islamic Council stating he saw nothing in the new family law which infringed the country’s social values, much less Islam, the BBC’s Martin Vogl in Mali says.

The High Islamic Council has said imams can only be dismissed by their congregation and it is unclear what weight the decision by local Muslim leaders to sack the imam will have, our reporter explains.

But the incident has highlighted the intense feelings among Muslims towards the new family law.

I have said before that I think the debate over the family code has exemplified a type of constructive Muslim engagement with democracy, but threats of violence and acts of intimidation obviously complicate that picture. I’m certainly willing to revise my conclusions, but this incident also makes me think about how complicated “democracy” is. Ideally, democracy carves out a space where actors struggle over political power and attempt to influence policymaking without recourse to violence and threats. But during the health care debate in the United States, we saw a number of threats made against members of Congress and President Obama, and during Obama’s term we have seen some acts of political violence by American citizens of various ideological stripes. So Americans might have to remove the log from our own eyes before we try to take the speck out of others’.

I bring up this comparison not to excuse the Malian Muslims who make threats, but to point out that questions about “whether Islam and democracy can coexist” are too simplistic. How do they coexist? is one of the questions I ask. And can we talk about countries passing between democratic and anti-democratic phases, or having democratic and anti-democratic tendencies at the same time? I hope Mali’s citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, can resolve the debate over the family code without recourse to violence and intimidation. But if they can’t, that doesn’t mean democracy cannot survive in Mali; it means that Malian democracy is competing with antidemocratic forces, and that Muslims are participating in both tendencies.

Map showing Kati, Mali: