When they heard the rebels were nearing Konna, a small town 700 km north of the Malian capital of Bamako, young men in nearby Djenne contemplated the state of their defences.

Last year, Islamists captured vast tracts of Malian territory, including historically important cities like Timbuktu and Gao where they banned drinking alcohol, smoking, playing music and imposed harsh punishments like flogging, stoning and amputations for supposed crimes like theft and adultery. They desecrated Mali’s rich Sufi Islamic heritage by demolishing several historic and sacred shrines.

What began as a rebellion by the Tuaregs, a community with historic grievances against Bamako, broadened into a multiethnic conflict led by self-identified Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who want to turn Mali into an Islamic state governed by the Sharia, a system of Islamic jurisprudence drawn from numerous sources.

Largest earthen building

Three hours southwest of Konna, Djenne is a town of narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs sprawled around the Grand Mosque, a fragile 13th century edifice of clay and mud, the largest earthen building in the world. In 1988, Unesco designated the entire town a World Heritage Site and prohibited the use of non-traditional building materials within the city limits.

On that sunny afternoon, there were no security forces stationed near Djenne; the conical domes of the Grand Mosque cast enigmatic shadows across the main square. “Well, we have the river,” said a resident, “There is no bridge, and we can tell ferrymen to park on this bank and remove the engines.” The boatmen seemed more circumspect. “If al-Qaeda arrives on the banks, I’ll bring them across,” laughed the captain, “If the army can’t stop them, it’s unlikely that my ferry will.”

On January 10, the rebels took control of Konna and were halted only when France came to the aid of its former colony. Since then, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is in the process of assembling a regional ground force to aid the French effort. French jets have pounded rebel positions across Northern Mali, an area larger than France, but have neither retaken Konna nor prevented the opening of a second front along the Mauritanian border in the west.

The puritanism of the Islamists in the North has taken many Malians by surprise. While 90 per cent of Malians describe themselves as Muslim, the constitution is secular, and clerics stress the powers of prayer and persuasion over the path of violence.

Prayer and persuasion

The Grand Mosque is a testament to such an approach. “The mosque is more than five hundred years old,” explained Hadj Almany Korobara, the Grand Imam of the mosque, “There were 300 Muslims in Djenné, but Koi Kumburu, the chief of Djenné, wasn’t one.” The faithful asked the chief to adopt Islam; he refused and instead devised a scheme to humiliate them.

“Kumburu gave the Imam a large amount of gold for safe keeping but had a henchman steal it back,” Imam Korobara explained, “The gold was thrown in the river and swallowed by a large fish. The fish was caught by Muslims and when they cut it open, they found the gold and returned it.” Humbled, Kumburu embraced Islam. “The palace was converted into the Grand Mosque,” Korobara concluded, adding that he was a descendant of the original three hundred.

“The people of this country have been religious for over ten centuries,” said Imam Mahamoud Dicko, President of the Islamic High Council of Mali, “We have our Islamic system, we worship god. This is nonsense what they are doing in the North — cutting hands, stoning people.” Imam Dicko tried to mediate between the government and the rebels but was repeatedly rebuffed. He now supports the French strikes against the rebels, “Why not? These people must bear the consequences of their actions.”

Yet, reform movements are much a part of West Africa’s Islamic landscape as Sufism, the most recent being the Wahabbiya movements that gained traction after the Second World War.

In France and Islam in West Africa, Christopher Harrison characterises West African Wahhabi movements as “a symbolic rupture with the majority of the Muslim community,” a refusal of all forms of popular piety including the cult of saints, and an exclusive reference to the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet as models of jurisprudence. In the early 20th century, Harrison writes, that cadres were drawn “from urban Muslims who suffered ‘a double exclusion’ both from French culture and from that of the Islamic establishment.”

Opinion piece

“This crisis isn’t about development. People don’t join al-Qaeda because they can’t find good jobs, or because their families are starving,” wrote Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat held captive by the Islamists for three months, in a recent opinion piece. But it appears, the rebels in the north draw on a pre-existing tradition of Islamic revolution as a means to counter a religious and political establishment perceived as wealthy, corrupt and compromised.

In Bamako, over extended interviews, a young man from Mopti, contrasted the perceived purity of purpose of the Islamist rebels with the blatant corruption, cronyism of the current Malian government. “The Islamists are good, I can’t say they are perfect,” he said, “If you want to listen to music, listen to music at home. Don’t sit in the streets; go to work to develop the country.”

Successive governments, he said, had simply looted his people, governments had changed but the elites remained. Yet, he balked at joining the rebels, or even living in lands they controlled. Data lends credence to this, often inchoate, support for the rebels. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that 53 per cent of Malians, and 65 per cent of the youth, are unemployed, and 87 per cent of existing employment is vulnerable to termination. Fifty-one per cent of Malians live on less than $1.25 a day.

Prominent clerics say the void in governance and employment has made the young vulnerable to Wahhabi factions. “Money coming from Saudi Arabia is being used to buy people,” said Chérif Ousmane Madani Haidara, the head of Ansar Dine, a Muslim group with the same name as the radicals in the North, “The Shariah is the law of God, these people only believe in the law of the gun.”

History

Haidara said he has been preaching a doctrine of peace, solidarity and restraint to his tens of thousands of followers across the world. He lives in Bamako in a massive complex with its own school, mosque, hospital and residential quarters. A golden Porsche Cayenne SUV, a black Hummer H2 and a white Acura QX 56 stood in the parking lot. “Everything is built from donations from the faithful. The school and hospital cater to thousands of poor people,” said an aide.

In 1818, Djenné was conquered by Seku Amadu, a cleric who led an uprising against the perceived corruption of the Islamic elites. The Grand Mosque was abandoned and another mosque was erected in its place. Eighty years later, in 1897, an ambitious French administrator named William Ponty was appointed as the city’s commandant de cercle. “Ponty wanted to rule French Africa,” said Imam Korobara, “he asked us to pray for him.”

The Muslims prayed and told Ponty to expect good news. In 1899, Ponty was appointed the Governor of French Sudan, the largest colony in West Africa, and was promoted to Governor in 1908. “In return the Imam asked him to rebuild the Grand Mosque,” Imam Korobara said. Construction was completed using forced labour and French funds in 1907. Like most parables, the moral is what one makes of it.

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