AFRICANGLOBE – Divisions within Mali’s powerful Haut Conseil Islamique mirror the crisis on the wider political stage.
After French and West African troops pushed Arab terrorists out from their strongholds in northern Mali this year, President Dioncounda Traoré promised national elections in July.
Many doubt the viability of this, given continuing fighting and a lack of preparation.
Most of all, Mali’s political class is yet to recover from Captain Amadou Sanogo’s putsch and the Tuareg terrorist takeover of the three biggest cities in northern Mali last year.
Politicians are arguing over the way forward: immediate elections, another transitional government or a national conference to rewrite the constitution.
The role of Islam is critical.
The Haut Conseil Islamique, (HCI), which was set up in 2002 to bring together the different strains of Islam in Mali, has suffered a split between conservative Wahhabi Muslims, financed by Saudi Arabia, and the more liberal adherents of Sufi Islam, who have traditionally been dominant in Mali.
February elections for the new board of the HCI were postponed.
Popular support for Mahmoud Dicko, HCI president since 2008, has fallen sharply following the terrorist takeover of the north.
Dicko, a Wahhabi, did not immediately criticise the Arab invaders harsh rule and destruction of Sufi shrines.
Moreover, 28 of the 32 members of the HCI board are Wahhabis. This puts them at odds with the wider population.
“The Arabs smashed the mausoleums in Timbuktu, and Dicko did not react,” says Mali’s most popular marabout and Sufi member of the HCI, Cherif Ousmane Madani Haïdara.
“He is a Wahhabi, so he did not condemn them. We are not Wahhabis, so we condemn them.”
Then he adds, diplomatically: “Apart from that, we are together.”
Although the HCI says it is not involved in politics, it has been much more strident since last year’s coup.
Its affiliates have been providing social services and trying to influence legislation.
There is also a debate about whether Mali should remain a secular republican state or if its constitution should more strongly reflect Islamic values.
About 95 percent of Malians are Muslim.
Politicians want to ally themselves with the HCI.
HCI member Yacouba Traoré gained a seat in government at the head of the ministry of religious affairs last August.
Belatedly, in January HCI president Dicko criticised the destruction of shrines and even thanked France’s President François Hollande for the military intervention in an interview published in France’s Catholic newspaper La Croix.
Opponents still see Dicko’s and the Wahhabis’ position as ambivalent.
“When the HCI does not denounce or make declarations against the destruction of mausoleums,” says Thierno Thiam, leader of the Tidiania, the largest Sufi group in Mali, “then other Muslim groups in Mali are going to say that Wahhabists, Salafists and Ansar Dine are all the same.
“That’s why things have gone bad between Muslim groups.” Thiam regards Wahabbism as the first step to a jihadist state.
Reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups is vital if elections are to produce stability, he adds.
“If we hold elections before reconciliation, Mali will be further destabilised,” says Thiam.
“If we don’t reconcile religious groups and we close our eyes to things, there will be another war.
“We can fight a war against Ansar Dine and MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest), chase them out of Mali … but you cannot fight an ideological war with weapons”
By: Rose Skelton