Mali: A Controversy Around Sex Education

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 And perhaps out of a desire to reinforce that power, Dicko kept going even after the textbook was withdrawn.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.

 

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New Post at The Maydan: “An Emerging Post-Salafi Current in West Africa and Beyond”

This post, up today at The Maydan, is a somewhat tentative argument from me (i.e., I might be completely wrong, but I wanted to explore the them). It deals with the question of whether there is something we might call “post-Salafism,” i.e. a trend within the Salafi movement that reaches much more accommodating positions toward Sufis and other non-Salafis. I consider the kinds of internal contradictions and limitations within Salafi politics that seem to be propelling some Salafi (or post-Salafi) openings toward Sufism in Mali, Mauritania, and even the United States. I look forward to your feedback!

Mali: Soumaïla Cissé Courts Religious Leaders in Advance of the Second Round

On 12 August, Mali will hold the second round of its presidential elections. The top two vote-getters – the incumbent, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), and the runner-up from the previous election, Soumaïla Cissé – will face off. As I mentioned here, Cissé has something of an uphill climb ahead of him in this short interval between the first and the second rounds. Having scored just 18% to Keïta’s 41%, Cissé has to quickly assemble a diverse coalition in order to win.

In this context, it is worth commenting on Cissé’s visit on 6 August to the town of Nioro du Sahel (map) to see the figure who is arguably Mali’s leading religious personality – Mohamed Ould Bouyé Haïdara, better known as the Chérif of Nioro. “Chérif” here is simply the French transliteration of the Arabic sharif, meaning a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. More immediately, the Chérif is the son of Shaykh Hamallah (1893-1943), one of the most prominent and controversial Sufi shaykhs in colonial West Africa. Hamallah’s story is too complicated to retrace here – see Benjamin Soares’ book for more.

After his visit to Nioro, Cissé announced that he had received the Chérif’s formal support for the second round. Cissé commented on the Chérif’s “aspiration…to see the country definitively get out of the crisis that we have known during these recent dark years.”

With the Chérif’s support, Cissé can also expect that of Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and another key Muslim leader in the country. In January of this year, Dicko (who leans Salafi, but is sometimes accommodating toward Sufis and their interests) stated that he would follow the Chérif’s lead when it came to the 2018 elections. Both the Chérif and Dicko, it will be recalled, backed IBK in 2013, partly through a movement called Sabati 2012 (which is itself, we should note, again supporting IBK this time).

At this time, an IBK victory still seems more probable to me than a Cissé victory, although the endorsements of some of the major, still undecided candidates from the first round could make a big difference one way or the other. In any case, one takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term. Even if IBK wins re-election, then, one should not assume that he has a massive mandate, either from ordinary Malians or from the country’s political, social, and religious elites.

 

A Southern Malian Muslim Leader’s Thoughts on Southern Politics and Northern Islamists

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.