Wahhabiyya paranoia in Bamako and the new intolerance of the tolerant

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch10 Jul 2015Tone Sommerfelt, Anne Hatløy, Kristin Jesnes

Social distrust and discrimination of religious minorities on the basis of ill-ascribed labels of extremism is part of the post-2012 political dynamic in southern Mali.In Bamako, the widespread fear of ‘Salafists’ is pervasive and directed towards non-violent religious minorities as well as terrorist groups.

Across southern Mali, words denoting ‘Salafist’ orientations of Islam are used to describe ‘jihadist’ and ‘terrorist’ groups. Alternatively, the term ‘Salafism’ is used interchangeably with ‘Wahhabiyya’ which now ascribes a terrorist label to Wahhabiyya supporters at large. Labels of terrorism also tend to be credited indiscriminately to other minorities represented among the religious plethora in Bamako, notably to followers of the Dawa congregation. Wahhabiyya and Dawa are conservative religious orientations that originate from Saudi Arabia and India, respectively. Despite theological differences, both Dawa and Wahhabiyya differ from mainstream Sufi Muslims in Mali regarding their encouragement to turn to a ‘purer’ form of religious practice, in contrast to religious practice inspired by African traditions. Wahhabism has been present in Bamako since the 1940s and Dawa since the 1980s. Many Dawa and Wahhabiyya women wear full veils and wear niqabs or burqas, while many male adherents grow beards. These characteristics are associated with terrorists in the north and they are a source of fear among mainstream Muslims in southern Mali.

Religious revival in Mali

Mali is experiencing a religious revival including an increased significance of religion in the public space. This is visible due to a growth of: religious organizations; madrasas (Quranic schools); building of new mosques; broadcasting of sermons and religious programs on radio stations; more extensive participation of women in religious organizations; and the growing popularity of religious leaders that are attracting large crowds at public meetings. These developments have been facilitated by the introduction of freedom of association after firstly the transition to democratic rule in 1992, which then led to new media politics and later liberalization efforts by development agencies in recent years. Nearly all Malians, approximately 96%, consider themselves Muslims according to a survey conducted in southern Mali in June 2014 by the Oslo-based research institute, Fafo. Considering the appearance of new religious organizations, most Malians still identify themselves as ‘Muslim only’, without relating to distinctions of religious brotherhood or order.

In Bamako, it is a commonly held view that the new significance of Islam in public space is an expression of Wahhabism expansion. There is also an obvious increase of Wahhabist mosques in Bamako, many of which led by Imams who have returned after religious education in Egypt. However, the number of adherents does not seem to match this impression. According to the Fafo survey, about 11% of the population in southern Mali identify themselves as Wahhabiyya. A more likely explanation suggests a change in the public expression of religion that reflects a general tendency in the region towards religious revival. This cannot be seen as mere reflections of developments in the north or of ‘foreign’ Salafist missionary activity alone. For instance, one of the most popular religious communities in southern Mali is Ançar Dine, an explicitly non-Wahhabist movement, whose leader Madani Haidara attracts thousands of followers to public events.

Wahhabism and ‘Islam noir’

In Mali, Wahhabism is a reformist movement where followers argue for the elimination of what is perceived as non-Muslim practices in Islam. In urban Bamako, many Wahhabist religious leaders criticize the observed disintegration of moral values and encourage a shift to more religious virtues of restraint. Some are explicitly non-political, whereas others argue for bringing Muslim values into politics, a position for which the leader Mahmoud Dicko of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) is known. Established in 2000, HCIM is a religious association that intends to serve as an intermediary between different Muslim communities and the state.

In theological terms, Wahhabism challenges the worship of Muslim tombs and saints as well as the celebration of life cycle ceremonies. These are common traditions that have long been common in Malian religious practice. Many of these traditions, which French colonial administrators referred to as ‘Islam noir’ (or ‘African Islam’ as opposed to ‘Arab Islam’), have been appropriated as a symbol of Malian national culture. Many Sufi religious leaders in Bamako insist that Malian Islam is as an open and tolerant form of Muslim practice.

‘Tolerant’ religious leaders and a fear of long beards

Many self-proclaimed tolerant Muslim leaders in Bamako cultivate a fear of Wahhabists and specifically those Wahhabists who are explicit about their non-political agenda and their active stance against militants in the north. We spoke with religious leaders in elite circles in Bamako in June 2014 and they spoke of Wahhabists being ‘Satanists’ or ‘jihadists’ and that ‘they try to take over our country’. Similar views were expressed in such statements, ‘We must get them, before they get us’ and, ‘They have arms, we must arm ourselves’. Similar messages are regularly expressed on Malian radio stations and at times these statements can resemble hate speech.

These religious leaders use the examples of Boko Haram, AQIM and MUJAO to underline the danger of Wahhabists. Paradoxically, many religious leaders who are the most active in accusing all Wahhabists of being terrorists at heart, and who ignite public fear of Muslim ‘foreign’ denomination, describe themselves as defenders of ‘interreligious communication’. In alleged pursuits of preserving Mali as a religiously moderate nation, they are soliciting economic support from European NGOs and state agencies. However they invite Christians, a tiny minority in Mali, to the table of interreligious dialogue and not Muslim urban minorities. Such demonization has already had horrific effects including when Malian troops killed 16 civilian Dawa preachers in the village of Diabaly in September 2012, assuming that their long beards were evidence of being associated with the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine faction (not to be confused with the Ançar Dine movement). Additionally, demonstrators at the Dawa Markaz mosque in Bamako claimed the mosque was harboring terrorists.

A need to combat social polarization alongside terrorism

The March 7 restaurant attack in Bamako by the jihadist group Al-Mourabitoun has added to the fear of extremist Salafist groups in southern Mali. Five people were killed and eight wounded. The incident illustrates that the threat of violent attacks by Islamist extremists is real. At the same time, intensified social exclusion of religious minorities on the basis of unsupported rumors and suspicions of armed extremism will only aggravate worries about insecurity among mainstream Malians. This only runs the risk of driving polarization even further. Any monitoring of militant groups in southern Mali should keep this in mind.