On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.
The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.
Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).
There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:
- As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
- Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
- In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
- The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.