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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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.