Cablegate: "Wahhabis" and Islam in Mali

DE RUEHBP #1223/01 2951619
R 221619Z OCT 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. IIR 7 114 0005 08
B. BAMAKO 01170
C. BAMAKO 00789

1. Summary: Some external observers have become
increasingly concerned over a segment of Malian Muslims
frequently described as "Wahhabi" (ref A), fearing that those
so labeled are likely to advance a radical agenda. This
concern stems from confusion, rooted in expedient if
inaccurate labels dating from as early as the French colonial
era, within Malian society over what the term Wahhabi means.
Such labels should not be interpreted as evidence of an
ideological link between Malian "Wahhabis" and Islamic
extremists. In Mali those who pray with crossed arms and
veil female family members are frequently called Wahhabi.
This group, which refers to itself as "ahl al-Sunna," does
not follow Wahhabi doctrine and has little, if anything, in
common with traditional Wahhabism. Understanding why this is
so, and what differentiates the al-Sunna from Mali's Sufi
majority, will improve our ability to reach out to Malian
Muslims. Al-Sunna in Bamako, Gao, Timbuktu and western Mali
freely shared views on Sharia law, treatment of women,
assistance from Saudi Arabia and other issues. In nearly all
respects these views proved identical to those expressed by
Malian Sufis who are known for practicing a tolerant and open
form of Islam. Rather than posing a threat as the Wahhabi
label implies, the al-Sunna respect the secular institutions
of the Malian state, express tolerance for other religious
traditions and have lived peacefully in Mali for more than 60
years - something that is unlikely to change in the near
future. End Summary.

Islamic Practices in Mali

2. Nearly all Muslims in Mali are Malikite Sunnis, meaning
they follow the Maliki school of Islamic law. Most of these
adhere to one of three Malikite Sunni Sufi brotherhoods: the
Quadriyya, Tijaniyya or Hamalliyya (ref B). A significant
number of Malian Sunnis, however, explicitly reject Sufi
doctrine. Although this group refers to itself as "ahl
al-Sunna" or "the people of the Sunna," Malians describe them
as "Wahhabi."

3. Malian al-Sunna, however, have little if anything in
common with traditional Wahhabis. They do not practice
Wahhabi doctrine and do not follow Mohammed abd al-Wahab.
More importantly, the al-Sunna do not adhere to the Hanbali
legal tradition - a key trait that characterizes Wahhabism.
Abdoul Aziz Yattabare, an al-Sunna Imam who directs one of
the largest medersas in Bamako, described all al-Sunna in
Mali as Malikite. Two other well-known al-Sunna Imams,
Mahamoud Dicko and Mohamed Kimbiri, were hesitant to state
categorically that every al-Sunna in Mali was Malikite but
agreed that Yattabare's assessment was largely correct.
Kimbiri, for instance, joked that he was "more Malikite" than
his Malikite Sufi colleagues. Dicko noted that in Mali like
anywhere else one can find Muslims who borrow from all four
classic Sunni traditions - Maliki, Hanbali, Shafi and Hanafi
- but that Malian al-Sunna are generally Malikite.

4. Al-Sunna live throughout Mali and come from a diverse set
of ethnic backgrounds including Songhrai, Bambara, Malinke,
Soninke, Sarakole and Peuhl. While it is relatively easy to
find al-Sunna in Mali's northern regions of Timbuktu and Gao,
most of the al-Sunna living in these areas appear to be
either Songhrai or from southern Mali origins. Al-Sunna is
noticeably less popular among northern Mali's Arab and Tuareg
populations. There are very few al-Sunna, for instance, in
the northernmost region of Kidal, which largely adheres to
the Sufi Quadriyya brotherhood.

Al-Sunna Influence in Mali

5. Al-Sunna have been in Mali since the 1940s when students
returning from universities in Egypt and the Arabian
peninsula brought with them new religious interpretations
that rejected key Sufi tenets such as the worship of Muslim
saints, mysticism and initiation rites. The rejection of the
core values of popular Sufi brotherhoods was part of a
broader attempt to return to "true" Islam based on strict
adherence to the Koran. Although these students were
familiar with Wahhabi doctrine, they never regarded
themselves as Wahhabi nor followed Wahhabism's key tenets.

BAMAKO 00001223 002 OF 004

They were, moreover, not adverse to incorporating modern or
western ideas deemed compatible with Sunni Islam.

6. French colonial authorities were extremely concerned by
political Islam and religious extremism during the decades
prior to Malian independence. In the 1930s, these fears
focused on the Hamalliyya and Shaykh Hamallah in the western
Malian town of Nioro du Sahel (ref B). After Shaykh
Hamallah's deportation to a French POW camp during WWII and
subsequent death, the French turned their sights on Malians
returning from the Middle East whom the French branded as
Wahhabis. Several French colonial administrators serving in
West Africa at the time noted that the traditional definition
of Wahhabism did not fit the form of Islam practiced by
Malian "Wahhabis," but these observations were overwhelmed by
the political expediency of saddling the new religious
movement with a label linked to backwardness and Islamic

7. Nor were the French the only ones working to discredit
Malians returning from Egypt and the Middle East. Because
this group explicitly rejected Mali's traditional Sufi
practices as misguided, prominent Malian religious and
political leaders interpreted the form of Islam they
practiced as an existential threat and joined the French in
portraying them as radical, dangerous extremists.

We Are Not Extremists

8. Malian al-Sunna still chafe at the Wahhabi label since
they do not regard themselves as Wahhabi and have little, if
anything, in common with Wahhabis from the Middle East. In
Mali the term has also served as a pejorative since the
colonial era and is still invoked, often for domestic
political reasons, to portray the al-Sunna as peddlers of
foreign extremism.

9. With only a few exceptions, the al-Sunna are now fully
integrated into Malian society. In Bamako, Sikasso, Gao and
Timbuktu al-Sunna leaders work closely with Sufis and hold
respected posts within organizations like Mali's High Council
of Islam. Al-Sunna Imams actively participate in an
inter-faith religious organization dedicated to combating the
spread of HIV/AIDS. Imams Yattabare and Dicko pointed to
al-Sunna involvement in the Malian economy - many of Mali's
most important economic operators are reportedly al-Sunna as
are a good proportion of small-time vendors working in the
informal sector - to emphasize how al-Sunna are working to
reinforce Mali's secular institutions. Al-Sunna are also
deeply involved in Mali's education sector as medersa
teachers and administrators - something that cannot be
overlooked in a nation short on teachers, schools and
education infrastructure.

10. Imam Yattabare urged Malians and the international
community not to lump the al-Sunna together with the Wahhabi
or other extremist groups. "Muslims are brothers," said
Yattabare, "but our understanding and world-views are not the
same. Our perspective in Mali is different than those in the
Middle East or even in South Africa. Failure to make this
difference will create unintended misunderstandings. Malian
al-Sunna are peaceful."

11. Unfortunately, many still fail to make this distinction.
Imam Mahamoud Dicko, who directs Mali's Islamic radio
station from a studio co-located with Bamako's Grand Mosque
and Islamic Cultural Center, is one example. Dicko attracted
significant attention in 2001 after he was quoted in the
international press criticizing former Malian President Alpha
Oumar Konare's pro-U.S. ties. By 2006, these comments
surfaced in an article in the U.S. Army journal Military
Review which described Dicko as the leader of a "harder, more
militant form of Islamic politics (that) has appeared
recently" in Bamako. "Coupled with the GSPC's appearance in
the Sahel," the article continued, "Dicko's anti-U.S.
campaign might inspire groups like the throw
their lot in with the jihadists."

12. While Dicko is known for his outspokenness, he is
certainly not the leader of an anti-American campaign. His
criticism of former President Konare and current President
Amadou Toumani Toure centers around his belief that Malian
political leaders are more responsive to the demands of the
international donor community than to the needs of average
Malians who lack food, clean water, health care and

BAMAKO 00001223 003 OF 004

educational opportunities. Opposition leaders, said Dicko,
will not openly criticize the government because they still
hold out hope for a government portfolio. "Me," he said, "I
am an Imam. I don't need a portfolio."

13. Characterizing al-Sunna as a recently arrived, "harder,
more militant" form of Islam is incorrect. Al-Sunna have
lived peacefully in Mali for more than 60 years and there is
no indication that this is likely to change. Dicko, other
Al-Sunna Imams and simple adherents throughout the country
appear as committed to Mali's tradition of religious
tolerance as their Sufi counterparts. Indeed, some al-Sunna
may be more committed to religious tolerance in Mali due to
the marginalization they have experienced because of their
religious beliefs.

Sharia Law

14. Doctrinal differences aside, Mali's al-Sunna and Sufi
communities have nearly identical positions on social and
political issues. This includes Sharia law, treatment of
women, respect for the secular Malian state and tolerance of
other religious practices. Although Sufi and al-Sunna
leaders frequently refer to Sharia law, they admit it can be
difficult to understand exactly what these references mean.
Imam Dicko himself said he has difficulty defining Sharia in
the Malian context. "Sharia," he asked, "what is it? In a
country where people don't have enough food to eat or water
to drink, how are you going to amputate someone's hand?"
Dicko easily dismissed aspects of Sharia not compatible with
Malian realities - something a fundamentalist Islamic leader
is unlikely to do. Malian references to Sharia appear
designed rather to encourage individual Muslims to adhere to
Islamic principles during their daily lives.

15. Al-Sunna and Sufi leaders also oppose a new Family Code
Law and abolition of the death penalty, two controversial
bills which President Amadou Toumani Toure recently asked the
National Assembly to approve. Although the proposed Family
Code amendments appear minor to outsiders - the changes would
allow women to officially register as Head of Household,
equalize inheritance rights for women, and enable children
not recognized by their father to use the last name of their
mother - Sufi and al-Sunna leaders describe the changes as
un-Islamic and are united in their opposition. "In Islam,"
said one al-Sunna Imam, "only men can be Head of Household."
Al-Sunna and Sufi Imams also oppose abolition of the death
penalty. The only clear point of divergence between the two
religious communities appears to center around the extent to
which women are veiled. Sufi leaders advise that women's
heads should be covered while the al-Sunna advocate a full
veil which, in some extreme cases, includes a burqha complete
with black gloves.

Saudi Funding, Or Lack Thereof

16. Al-Sunna leaders also discussed Saudi funding, or the
lack thereof. It is commonly believed that Malians who
convert to al-Sunna do so after traveling to Egypt or the
Middle East. This was certainly the case for the first
Malian al-Sunna and still holds for some al-Sunna today.
Many Malian al-Sunna, however, converted while working in
Central or Southern Africa where they met other Malian
al-Sunna living abroad. Consequently, most funding for
al-Sunna mosques and medersas appears to come not from Saudi
Arabia but from Malians based abroad (in Africa, Europe or
the Middle East).

17. In Gao, Timbuktu, and Bamako, al-Sunna Imams described
Saudi funding as focused only on seed money for start-up
projects or absent altogether. In Gao, the leaders of an
isolationist al-Sunna village (often described by outsiders
as a hot-bed of strong Wahhabi sentiment) complained that a
water pump installed by Saudi Arabia, complete with a
flapping Saudi flag on top, broke down every three months
(ref C). Village leaders harbored no expectations of a
Saudi-based repair initiative. In Timbuktu, the Imam of an
impressive al-Sunna mosque-medersa complex in the sand on the
edge of town received funding not from Saudi Arabia but from
private Malians based abroad. The Imam expressed little hope
for future Saudi funding. In Bamako Imam Yattabare, the
Director of one of Mali's largest medersas, said his school
was built with donations from private Malians and received no

BAMAKO 00001223 004 OF 004

support from Saudi Arabia. He said al-Sunna regarded Saudi
funding as fleeting with no follow-up.

18. Imam Dicko was even more outspoken on Saudi support for
Malian al-Sunna. Dicko complained that Mali's Islamic Radio
station has received nothing from Saudi Arabia despite a
personal visit from Mecca's Grand Imam to the radio station
during the 1990s. "The Saudis," said Dicko, "prefer to spend
their money in nightclubs and casinos."

--------------------------------------------- -------
Comment: Recalibrating the View of Malian "Wahhabis"
--------------------------------------------- -------

19. As in most countries, prudence dictates that one can not
dismiss the possibility that Islamic extremism, or the
potential for it, exists in Mali. It is important, however,
to clarify the outlook of a significant group of Malian
Muslims, routinely described as Wahhabi. Contrary to popular
belief, the al-Sunna are not a new phenomenon in Mali. Nor
are they inherently anti-American or extremist. Apart from
the doctrinal differences that separate them from Malian
Sufis, the al-Sunna's opinions on issues like Islamic law,
the treatment of women and religious tolerance are extremely
close, and in many cases indistinguishable, from their Sufi
counterparts and fall well within the Malian mainstream.
Understanding this, and contextual undercurrents attached to
the Wahhabi label in Mali, will strengthen our ability to
work with al-Sunna leaders to better focus our outreach
strategies in Mali.

© Scoop Media

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