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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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.