Mali's Muslims steer back to spiritual roots

Leaders say a decade of Western aid has brought with it materialistic Western values

Mali has long won the praise of the international community as an African model of multiparty democracy and free-market reform. But a decade after democracy was established, the tide of hardline Islam is on the rise in this peaceful country of 11 million.

Ten years ago, there were just a few Islamic associations. Now there are more than 150. And in recent years, Muslim activists have become the government's main critics. Every Friday in mosques around the country, clerics openly accuse the country's small political elite of siphoning off Western aid to the detriment of a population that remains stuck in misery and is largely illiterate.

Now, the government is trying to contain this growing force. Because the secular Constitution bans religious parties, the government has set up a government-run council to represent these groups, which met for the first time recently.

Hundreds of Muslim leaders gathered inside Bamako's Palais des Congres convention center last month to establish the High Islamic Council. Between prayers and sermons, the devout Muslims accused rich donor countries of corrupting Mali with money and immorality. They pointed at Mali's $3 billion external debt. They spoke of their hopes of one day establishing an Islamic state more in line with traditional African values and more representative of the population, which is more than 80 percent Muslim. They called the United States the "Great Satan."

The trend is sweeping across the Muslim regions of Africa. "Many believe this activity ... is a result of poverty and lack of a broad, universal education," says Wendy Wilson Fall, director of the Dakar, Senegal-based West African Research Center. "A sense of lack or loss over the social and cultural environment - also a byproduct of poverty - exacerbates this."

Mali's young democracy has not delivered on its promises, says Pearl Robinson, a political science professor at Tufts University. "There is an ongoing debate about the meaning of democracy in Africa.... Are competitive elections and civil liberties sufficient, or must there also be some elements of economic betterment?" Even those with college degrees have no real prospect for long-term employment, making them receptive to messages of radical Islam, she says.

"We've tried to copy the secular model from French colonial rule, but obviously that is failing us," says Moussa Diakite, a delegate at the Bamako gathering. "Since most Malians are Muslims, and our Muslim heritage reaches back more than a thousand years, wouldn't it be healthier to have an Islamic state? The government is always asking Muslim leaders to appease the Muslim population, so wouldn't it be easier for Islamic leaders to be in power?"

Imam Mahamoud Dicko, the director of Bamako's Islamic Radio, says it's a tale of two Malis. "The West sees us through this small window and turns us into a model of what is right for them.... Even if you build nice roads and buildings, if you destroy man's spirit he will become an animal. I am trying to reintroduce religion to balance our society. And it doesn't just have to be with the type of Islam that the West accepts and understands."

His radio station has castigated Mali's first lady, Adame Ba Konare, for wearing short skirts in public and hosting beauty pageants. Mr. Dicko is also a leading critic of government efforts to reform Mali's family code. He condemns proposals such as one that would make husband and wife equal in marriage, saying that according to the Koran, the wife must obey her husband. "If the home disintegrates," he explains, "the whole society falls to pieces."

Yaya Traore, who has reported on the rise of Islamic activity for an independent daily in Bamako, alleges hardline groups and some opposition politicians are receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to push a religious agenda - a charge they deny. "The Islamic militants are part of the same sociopolitical elite they criticize, but their support comes from countries seeking to establish Islamic values, rather than backers of free-market reforms, like the IMF," he says.

For David Gutelius, a Mali specialist at the Stanford Research Institute, the solution is clear.

"I fear that unless Mali begins to develop economically and politically ... the trend toward radicalization will continue for the worse."

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