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Islamic Militancy on the Rise in Mali - 2002-01-25

In the Muslim-dominated West African country of Mali, commentators, religious leaders and opposition politicians say corruption, a run-down public school system and poverty are contributing to a rise in Islamic militancy. However, the influence of Islamic militants remains limited.

Delegates from more than 150 Malian Islamic organizations gathered last week in Bamako's Palais des Congres (Convention Center) with the goal of establishing a High Islamic Council. The state-funded body will oversee the country's increasingly vocal Islamic militants.

Muslims in Mali account for more than 80 percent of the population. Thiam Abdoulaye N'Doula was one of the delegates, representing a group of Muslim intellectuals. Even though he says he is against extreme Islamic thought, like Wahhabism, Mr. N'Doula says he understands the concerns of those who follow this conservative movement.

Wahhabism, which is the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, has seen a growing number of adherents in recent years in Mali. They seek to build more religious schools, impose the legal system based on Islam called Sharia and have women wear head coverings.

"Extremism here is a consequence of something, like a lack of jobs or development," says Mr. N'Doula. "For Muslims in Mali, the High Islamic Council will be a great opportunity so that everyone can come together, and help those who want to maximize the potential of what is a strong Muslim population." Mr. N'Doula adds that Islam should be the guiding principle as Mali tries to modernize.

Moussa Diakite represents a Malian association with Wahhabi tendencies. "We will work progressively, using persuasion, and also rational, convincing and scientific methods to show to Muslims in Mali that the best path is the one of the Sharia," he says.

In Bamako, the traditional market next to the Grand Mosque is bustling with activity. Just above the market lie the studios of Mali's Radio Islam. Twelve hours a day, it broadcasts prayers and Muslim teachings in French and Arabic. In one controversial broadcast, the radio criticized Mali's First Lady, Adame Ba Konaré, for wearing short skirts in public.

This has brought unwanted international attention to its director, the Imam Mahamoud Dicko. Foreign news reports have described him as an overzealous Islamic militant. Mr. Dicko claims because of this, Mali's government intervened and that it pressured Islamic delegates to make sure he would not be elected to head the country's High Islamic Council.

Mr. Dicko describes Mali, with its spiraling foreign debt, as a victim of the global capitalist system. "Today, world powers are trying to make a world where everything is homogeneous," he says. "I resent this globalization, this new world order that must be applied to everybody, that everybody must accept." Mr. Dicko says Mali's presidential elections later this year will be crucial to determine the country's course.

President Alpha Oumar Konare is stepping down after two four-year terms that followed the end of a long military dictatorship. Mr. Dicko says President Konare was only interested in gaining praise from western powers, while ignoring the needs and sensibilities of Malians.

One of the main opposition leaders, Choguel Maiga, agrees. He blames President Konare for inciting the rise in Muslim extremism. As an example, he cites the time Mr. Konare went on national television with a condom in his hand to promote the government's campaign against HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Maiga says this completely shocked Malians. "Mr. Konare has always been more interested in having a good image in the western media," he says. "He's not interested in what Malians think. But mistakes like these can provoke a backlash. However, I think Mali's society is fundamentally tolerant. I don't think a violent and militant Islam has a future in Mali."

Yaya Traore, a journalist who has been following the rise of Islamic militancy, believes divisions in the Islamic camp are too great for its leaders to have an impact. "The reality is that militants are present in Mali, but their groups are so divided that they can't agree on anything and clearly there is no coherent Islamic project in the country," he says.

In fact, victories by Mali's militant Islamic leaders are few. For example, efforts to close down nightclubs and bars during the holy month of Ramadan have failed. The state remains secular, owing to its heritage of French colonial rule.

Mr. Traore also says the creation of the High Islamic Council is a way for the government to contain Islamic militants.