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.

AQIM pays for its vehicles with profits from drug and cigarette smuggling operations, as well as insidious trafficking in humans and guns. Colonel Maiga's ragged fighting contingent is so strapped for cash that his soldiers carry ancient Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles left over from Lord knows when. Doing its best to level the playing field, the U.S. Army has donated Land Rovers and other much-needed items to Colonel Maiga's forces. No surprise, a visiting journalist with an American passport is welcomed as a minor celebrity on the Timbuktu army post.

Meanwhile, virtually all Malians live in the southern part of the country, many near the Niger River. Most Malians have never heard of AQIM and could not care less about Osama bin Laden and his nutty devotees. Largely subsistence farmers using primitive hand tools, they're too busy trying to find their next meal or stave off malaria.

These are honest people. A street vendor hawking cell phones can leave his stall unattended for lunch and be confident all his wares will be there upon his return. And Malians get along. There are dozens of ethnic groups in the country--most speaking different languages and with varying skin tones. They developed a complex and sophisticated system centuries ago for coexisting peacefully. This system--based on mutual interdependence and humorous insults to erase tensions--still functions well today.

Toleration runs deep. General Gabriel Poudiogou, chief of the general staff of the Malian army, is a Christian. Nobody cares. At many Islamic schools, boys and girls study together; that's clearly not how it's done in the terrorist-training mills.

And Malians have been Muslims a long time--since the first millennium, in fact, when Arab traders arrived from Northern Africa. It's a peculiar, if ambivalent brand of Islam, to be sure. They are Sufis, from the mystical branch of Islam that encourages an individual relationship with God. Sufis are less prone to the herd behavior found among militant jihadists.

Rich or poor, they identify themselves as Malians first and foremost, not as Muslims. Not one of the nine fellows I watched the Germany-Spain finals of the Euro 2008 with even looked up from the black-and-white TV set when the call-to-prayer sounded over the ubiquitous loudspeakers. Still, many mosques do a brisk business. And to be fair, many Malians, particularly the rural ones, don't touch booze.

Malians reasonably think their politicians are crooks. Still, regular elections are held and the losers leave office peacefully. Petty corruption is a way of life; at Sofitel's luxury hotel in Bamako--owned by Muammar Qaddafi, of all people--Mali officials and other high rollers in $3,000 Italian suits cavort openly with high-priced Ghanaian prostitutes.

But that's nothing compared with how the top religious leaders make out. Take the case of Mali's most popular Muslim leader, Imam Ousame Chérif Haidara, who can fill a massive stadium with rapt admirers. The charismatic Haidara's housing compound dwarfs many in Beverly Hills. His fleet of cars includes a Hummer. His home video system boasts the latest Samsung 72″ flat-screen HDTV (retail value $2,999). Meanwhile, he has congregants who dig through open fields of trash for morsels of food. (To be fair, many Malian imams have problems paying their electric bill.)

The well-heeled Haidara ends up being one of the good guys; he is among the vast majority of Sufi leaders preaching peaceful Islam in Mali today. Interestingly, a turf war is just getting underway between traditional, gentle Islam in Mali and the less tolerant forms that are exported primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis are pouring money into Mali to support their Wahhabi brand of Islam.

The Iranians have also gotten into the game. They are dumping money into Malian mosques to tout the Shia brand. There's no way to trace Saudi and Iranian flows of funds into Mali since the money streams discreetly into sympathetic mosques through embassies, nongovernmental organizations, and cultural centers.

Imam Mahamadou Diallo, who presides over a smallish mosque in a rundown area of Bamako, explains that the Saudis will pay an imam $500 a month to do their bidding, while the Iranians pay about $400. This is huge money in Mali. Nonetheless, local observers believe that the Saudis and Iranians control only 3 to 5 percent of mosques in Mali, although the long-term trend toward radical Islam causes concern in some quarters.

That's where the U.S. government comes in, spreading its own largesse around Mali. USAID supported a bucketload of health and education projects with $40 million in grants last year. The Peace Corps has a huge program in Mali--around 120 volunteers at any given time. Other federal agencies perform scads of generous acts in Mali that build enormous good will. Most notable: the unheralded but effective Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government initiative that aims to reduce poverty in the world's very poorest countries through sustainable economic growth.

Diplomats call this global effort "preventive diplomacy," though a better term might be soft counterterrorism. The idea is that the remote Malian village that has received free eye exams from a U.S. Army medic is going to be less receptive should Islamic militants show up a few weeks later. It works. Nobody with any sense, however, thinks that American aid or firepower is primarily responsible for peaceful Islam in Mali. That's a bit like crediting the flea on a dog's back for the canine's ability to fetch.

It's tempting to try to draw conclusions from Mali's tolerant live-and-let-live Islamic society. How can it be exported or duplicated? Are there lessons here for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or even Detroit? Probably not. Malians have been practicing their own lovely, peaceful Islam for more than 1,000 years. Sadly, it appears to be a one-off deal.

Willy Stern, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University's School of Law, Carleton College, and Colorado College, is a writer based in Nashville.