Residents of northern Mali say Islamist militant groups currently running parts of the region are trying to win hearts and minds with an odd mix of punishment and charity.
The groups carry out harsh corporal punishment they say the religion requires, while at the same time doling out cash and other gifts.
During a recent meeting in Mali’s northern city of Kidal, local residents and religious leaders said they reject the position of Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Dine, which wants to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law throughout Mali.
When Tuareg separatists seized northern Mali in late March, fighting alongside them were Islamists who want to make the predominantly Muslim but secular country an Islamic republic.
Malians expressed shock last week when Ansar Dine flogged a couple in a public square in Timbuktu apparently for having sex outside marriage.
The man and woman each received 100 lashes before they were transported to a hospital by Ansar Dine. The couple reportedly got married two days later. Ansar Dine members gave them money and a goat, local residents said.
A 30-year-old Timbuktu resident told VOA that the newly married man is poor and Ansar Dine showered him with gifts as a way to win him over to their thinking.
He said on the one hand you have group members who recently beat an elderly man for possessing cigarettes, and a woman food vendor for not wearing a veil. On the other hand, Ansar Dine confiscates food aid coming into the region so they can dole it out to different communities in a bid to gain favor.
"They hand out candy to children," he said.
The Timbuktu resident said he did not want to be recorded because a man he knows was recently roughed up by armed men after talking with the press.
Ansar Dine is one group in northern Mali said to have ties with terrorists. Another is the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.
This group of mostly foreigners, which dominates in some areas of Gao, is also trying to win the people’s favor, said a Gao resident who did not want his name used for fear of reprisals.
He laments that some local youths have joined MUJAO. “But it’s purely for survival not ideology,” he said. “The youths who join them receive money.” He said MUJAO has also appealed to communities by handing out cash for work.
For many residents VOA spoke with, it’s not even a question of religion.
The Gao resident says no one should be fooled by MUJAO’s claims of devotion to Islam. "They are terrorists living off of kidnapping and drug smuggling, period," he said.
Another resident of Gao said eventually the people, more resentful every day, are going to rise up - and he fears a blood bath.
"We’ve got mosques that were here long before these people were born," he said. "What are they going to tell us about Islam?"