Mali: “The emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood party type seems unlikely”

Analyst Cynthia Ohayon, working on West Africa for the International Crisis Group, focused on the issue of Islam’s influence on the political sphere in a recent report. She answers our questions. Interview.

What is the influence of Islam on the political sphere in Mali, which includes 95% of Muslims according to the 2009 census? It is the question that divides and is far from being decided. In 2013, during the campaign for the presidential election, Imam Mahmoud Dicko and Bouyé Haïdara supported the candidate of the Rassemblement pour le Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, while Cherif Ousmane Haïdara did not want to give instructions to vote. Previously, there was an unfortunate precedent in 2009 with the Family Code, which was no longer adopted because of the mobilization organized by Imam Mahmoud Dicko, President of the Islamic High Council (HCI) and “Wahhabi”. Since then, religious leaders have known what they weigh: a lot.

In a report, Islam and politics in Mali: between myth and reality, published on July 18, International Crisis Group relativizes the alarmism around the influence of Islam on the political life in Mali. Dissension within the Muslim world, the regulation of the religious sphere, the participation of Muslim leaders in electoral competitions, the “Maliki” “Wahhabi” cleavage, the NGO divides the “myth” from the “reality” as to this influence.

Cynthia Ohayon

Cynthia Ohayon, an analyst on West Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG) and author of the report, answers’ questions. Why did you become interested in the question of Islam in Mali?

Cynthia Ohayon: This question is part of a fundamental work on the dysfunctions revealed by the 2012 crisis, but which precede it. During this crisis, armed groups claiming to be Islamic were propelled to the forefront, which accentuated the debate on the influence of religious on public and political life. But this influence is often exaggerated, even fantasized, and we have found it useful to separate the myth and the reality on this question. The challenge is to see how this influence of the religious – which is undeniable but not disproportionate as some fear – can lead to something positive; how a Mali in crisis can allow religious leaders, who are very much listened to by the population, to play the role of social regulators and contribute to the resolution of conflicts.

The growing influence of the religious in Mali is linked to the failure of the State…

What is the link (between cause and effect) between the failure of the State and the growing influence of the religious in Mali?

The growing influence of the religious in Mali is linked to the failure of the State: it is one of its consequences. The religious first invested the social domain, replacing a failing State in services, education, health, etc. As the authority of the State has weakened and the political class has appeared not only corrupt but also unable to solve the problems of Mali, the religious have emerged as the only credible figures of authority beside the population. This is all the more true in a 95 percent Muslim and very religious society where religion has a considerable social weight. The other link between the two tendencies is that the growing influence of the religious can in turn further weaken the authority of the State, especially if the religious seek to invest political life, or even replace politicians, or if the State tries to resume control too muscularly, which would lead it to more discredit itself.

In your report, you explain that we must distinguish “the influence of Islam as a religion” from that of Muslim leaders. How important is this distinction?

On must distinguish the influence of Islam, as a religion, as a corpus of values, and the influence of Muslim leaders, who sometimes behave more as entrepreneurs and even as politicians. Islam has an influence on public and political life which stems from its social weight, its importance in society and the daily life of the Malians. Muslim leaders are sometimes influential for reasons other than the promotion of Islam: the defense of personal interests (enrichment), the quest for power or influence. Their influence often results from strategies or behaviors that are ultimately quite similar to those of politicians.

You also write that behind these motivations, which are diverse, a current attracted by political Islam is emerging, and would be carried by Imam Mahmoud Dicko . In Mali, is there a risk that an Islamist party will emerge in the near future?

No one can predict the future with certainty. It should first be recalled that the Constitution prohibits the existence of religious parties. It seems unlikely that it will be modified in this direction in the near future. The religious, including Imam Mahmoud Dicko himself, guarantee that they do not seek to conquer power. Some religious, however, are tempted by politics, some have obtained local mandates, for example. But in my opinion, they will rather continue to be involved in political life in an informal and mainly indirect way, depending on the circumstances. As we write in the report, for the moment they are seeking to be pressure groups, or king makers. To have influence, behind the scenes, rather than exercising power. Nothing says that this could not evolve into a more distant future, but in the medium term, the emergence of a party of the Muslim Brotherhood type seems unlikely in Mali.

Today, the spread of hate speech, insults in the radios and in the mosques by the preachers, is it not a sign of a failure of the Islamic High Council, which nevertheless has the responsibility of coordinating the actions within the Muslim community?

It’s effectively the task of the HCI to regulate religious speech and to reframe potential slippages. Unfortunately, it is handicapped by internal dissension between the different tendencies of Islam that compose it, the ideological rivalries between them and the personal quarrels between their leaders. The “Maliki” trend, embodied by Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, complains of not being associated with the functioning and meetings of the HCI, which is dominated by the “Wahhabi” represented by HCI President Imam Mahmoud Dicko . As long as the different currents of Islam are unable to reach an agreement to form a truly representative body of Malian Islam in its diversity, it will be difficult for the HCI to play its full part, and for the State to have only one legitimate interlocutor representing the entire Muslim community.

The State alone cannot regulate the religious sphere, and it is not clear that the HCI can help it because, as you just said, it is paralyzed by internal divisions. Today, the most shared wish is to see the State intervene in this area. So who in your opinion, can do this job?

That’s the difficulty. Some religious have told us that they want the State to get more involved, while others warn against overly intrusive intervention by the State.

The reality is that the Malian State has neither legitimacy, nor the credibility, nor even the means to regulate religious activities. It is therefore necessary to establish a partnership between the political and religious authorities.

The State can give the impulse and focus on accompaniment, but it must not become too intrusive in the sensitive field of religion. The religious must be at the heart of the process, and this is mainly the role of the religious. Balance is tricky to find. We have identified two areas where the State can get involved: the regulation of hateful or intolerant remarks, which everybody deplores, and the improvement of the training of imams, which is a problem regularly cited by our interlocutors. It is necessary that the political class have the will to really make things happen, and that the religious agree to put a little order in the religious sphere, even if it means to make some, unhappy.

Remarks collected by Bokar Sangaré