The Magazine

Moderate Islam, African-style

Meet the beer-swilling Muslims of Mali.

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By WILLY STERN
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Bamako, Mali

On a Thursday night at the trendy Amandine Fast Food restaurant in Bamako, hip Malian women wear stylish blue jeans and tight, cleavage-revealing blouses. There isn't a burkha in sight. Their male buddies are chugging Castel beer and, yes, a plate of ham sandwiches. When pressed, they say that George W. Bush is a decent, if simple, sort of bloke.

These are Malians. They live in a functioning democracy, are unbridled (if pesky) capitalists, and wonder if Osama bin Laden is deranged. Their countrymen stick American flags everywhere, notably on the mud-flaps of taxis that zip crazily around their impossibly crowded and pothole-strewn streets.

They're dirt poor--Mali's per capita income of $380 ranks among the lowest on this planet. Seventy percent of them can't read the newspaper. Average life expectancy is the wrong side of 50. As one local government official explains--after diplomatically asking this visiting scribe for $25 to conduct the interview--"If you get sick here, you die." Yet despite their hardscrabble existence, they are hospitable, open, and friendly--and proud. They meet you as a peer.

Did I mention that around 90 percent of these folks are Muslims? Welcome to moderate Islam, African-style. So much for the silly leftist babble that radical Islam springs from poverty and ignorance. If so, Mali, a backward, resource-poor, and landlocked nation of 12.5 million people in West Africa, ought to be the dream enlistment post of every al Qaeda recruiter out hustling the new generation of militant killers. It ain't.

That isn't to say that al Qaeda doesn't give it the old college try. Mali's northern half--about the size of Texas--is the lawless Sahara. Make no mistake: There is an al Qaeda offshoot roaming around in that vast and inhospitable stretch of sand. These terrorists call themselves "Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb." Actually, everybody in this former French colony refers to these Muslim extremists as AQIM; split into three or four splinter groups in the Sahara, they number around 150 adherents all told. They've learned how to kidnap tourists for hefty ransoms and how to employ IEDs to murder innocents, skills they apparently picked up in Iraq.

AQIM--ragtag bunch though it might appear--has become Mali's problem. But the members aren't Malians. No surprise, they're Arabs--Libyans, Algerians, and the like. The only Malians involved, say military sources, are drivers looking for easy cash in a region where owning three camels makes you rich. Nonetheless, the Bush administration made a reasonable decision that the Sahara of today ought not become the Afghanistan of 2000. No terrorist training camps, thank you.

Enter the U.S. Army. Regular contingents of Special Forces--all seemingly wearing wraparound Ray-Ban sunglasses--regularly swoop down into Mali on C-130 planes. They're on short-term missions to train the well-meaning, if still green, Malian soldiers in how to find and kill terrorists. (Our soldiers' orders don't allow them to shoot at the bad guys themselves.)

To be certain, some are troubled by aspects of the United States' focused counterterrorism strategy in Mali. Take a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, Robert Pringle, a career Foreign Service officer. After leaving the State Department, Pringle in 2006 penned a generally thoughtful treatise on "Democratization in Mali." But among his conclusions was this: America's counterterrorism efforts in the Sahara are "sometimes unduly influenced by shallow, worst-case analysis of Islamist potential."

Among the Malian officials who believe Pringle's -analysis might be a tad shallow is Colonel Younoussa Maiga, commander of the Malian army forces in Timbuktu. The amiable colonel keeps an American flag perched on his desk. Timbuktu has become a sad metaphor for Islam's inability to adapt to a changing world. In the 16th century, Timbuktu was a bustling center of Islamic scholarship, where leading theologians and legal minds gathered. Today, it's a village at the edge of the desert with heaps of donkeys and little in the way of schools or plumbing.

Thanks to Colonel Maiga's soldiers and American satellite technology, terrorists don't dare show their faces in Timbuktu; they lurk in the desert to the north while Japanese and French tourists snap photos of Timbuktu's picturesque mosque. Colonel Maiga sends regular patrols out to try to disrupt the terrorists. Just like the bad guys they chase, the Malian soldiers ride around in Toyota Land Cruisers.