Religion and The Consolidation of Democracy In Mali: The Dog That Doesn’t Bark



By Stephen A. Harmon1


This article examines the role of religion, especially Islam, in Mali’s democratic transition over the past fifteen years. It provides an overview of the religious demographics in Mali and a brief history of Malian Islam and its relation to political power, whether traditional, colonial, or post-independence. It argues that Islam in Mali, unlike in many other predominately Muslim countries, has a tradition of tolerance and accommodation and has not disrupted or hindered democratic transition. Rather it has facilitated and nurtured that transition, partly because of the willingness of most Islamic leaders to remain politically neutral and partly because Mali’s Islamic associations, along with other elements of civil society, have participated in conflict and crisis resolution, notably in the Tuareg rebellion and the ‘school crisis.’ The article concludes that despite anecdotal incidents of sectarian violence and a perceived recent increase in the numbers and influence of Islamist groups, both domestic and foreign, Islam continues to play a constructive, tolerant role in the political arena as Mali moves through its second decade of democratic transition.


The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have cast new light on the role of religion, especially Islam, in community life in Africa and elsewhere. To be sure, Islam has been identified with intolerance and horrific acts of violence in Africa. Recent history has seen the spread of extremist strains of Islam in Africa, such as Wahhabism, as well as decades of war in Sudan perpetrated by the Muslim North against the Christian and traditionalist South, not to mention the deadly religious riots that have plagued parts of Nigeria. Yet, the view of Islam as intolerant and violent, as well as refractory to democracy, is belied by the Malian experience. Mali, unlike many other predominantly Muslim countries, has managed to avoid what has been called ‘enchantment of the public realm’, or the loss of secular purpose in society, by not imposing shariah law, the veiling and cloistering of women, the banning of alcohol sales, and other customs that represent an intolerant

approach to non-Muslim faiths. The Malian model is one of deference to Islam

and acceptance of Mali as an Islamic society, but the state is secular, and other

1 Pittsburg State University, Kansas, August 15, 2004,
2 U.S. Department of State, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Mali (Washington, DC: Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, September 9, 1999), pp. 1-2; Fatema Mernissi describes how Muslim rulers as far back as medieval times, rather than confront real issues of reform, have fallen back on the issues of restricting the movement of women and banning alcohol. See Fatema Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1992), pp. 153-157.

religions, including Christianity and traditional beliefs, are freely practised. Malian

Islam is tolerant. Women are not secluded, and family law is a mixture of local

tradition and Islamic practices. People of one religion freely attend marriages as

baptisms, of others. The lack of a wall of separation between the government and religion has not led to the imposition of Islam on the private religious domain of non-believers.

Mali is a secular state; its constitution calls for freedom of religion. The government respects this right and in fact contributes to the free practice of religion. There is no state religion, though Islam clearly predominates. The population is roughly 90% Muslim, almost all Sunni. Of the remaining 10%, half are Christians, evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant, and half are

practitioners of traditional religions. Despite the presence of non-Muslim

minorities, Mali sees itself as a Muslim country, and Islam is a major component of national identity. However, Mali has been relatively free of the kind of religious strife that has plagued other African countries such as Nigeria and Sudan. An obvious reason is that Mali, which also straddles the Sahel region, is not characterised by a Muslim North and a Christian South. Though Mali’s Christians do reside primarily in the South, the entire country is predominantly Muslim. Therefore, the religious cleavage does not reinforce any ethnic cleavage. Less obvious reasons include Mali’s traditions of religious tolerance and inter-ethnic co- operation. These traditions have cemented the coexistence of different religions

and ethnicities, while generating a national awareness. Many Malians believe that

their tradition of co-existence and tolerance in matters of religion and ethnicity has spared them the twin traps of Islamic radicalism and ethnic strife that have derailed


Undoubtedly, Islam has not hindered Mali’s on-going democratic

transition. Indeed, Mali has earned a reputation as a model of democracy in the

so many democratic experiments in the Muslim world.

Muslim world. Jane’s Intelligence Review describes Mali as ‘the Islamic world’s 8

strongest democracy’. The New York think tank Freedom House lists only two of

47 Muslim majority countries as fully ‘free’, Mali and neighbouring Senegal, while

Italian journalist, Sandro Magister, sees Mali as an ‘oasis of democracy’ in the 9

Islamic world. Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal regards Mali’s ‘rare

3 U.S. State Department, Op Cit, 2002, p. 3. A notable exception is the small but rigorous Wahhabi community of Mali, based in Bamako and other urban centers, including Sikasso. Wahhabi women are veiled, and access to them is severely restricted, even for relatives (R.L. Warms, ‘Merchants, Muslims and Wahhabiyya: The Elaboration of Islamic Identity in Sikasso, Mali’, Canadian Journal of African Studies. Vol. 26, No. 3 (1992), pp. 485-507).

4 U.S. State Department, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002: Mali (Washington, DC: Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2002), p. 3; R. L. Warms, Op Cit, p. 504.
5 Sandro Magister, ‘Worldwide Islam Has an Oasis of Democracy: Mali’, Chiesa Newsletter, July 1 (2004), p. 2.

6 Yaroslav Trofimov, ‘Islamic Democracy? Mali Finds a Way to Make it Work’, The Wall Street Journal. June 22 (2004), p. 1.
7 I am using the term ‘transition’ here in two senses. In the broader sense, I use it to refer to the transition from single-party dictatorship to multiparty democracy, a process that I consider to be ongoing. In the narrower sense, the term refers to the transition from military government to civilian government from the coup of March 1991 to the inauguration of President Konaré in June of 1991.

8 Jane’s Intelligence Review, ‘‘Sentinel World View: North Africa/West Africa – Mali’ June 11 (2004), p. 1.
9 Sandro Magister, Op. Cit., p. 1.

success’ as a ‘free’ Muslim country as an example to the rest of the Islamic


As Mali’s President, Amadou Toumani Touré, recently expressed: ‘What

we have here is an Islam that is very ancient, tolerant and enlightened. We see nothing in our religion that would prevent us from being democratic.’11

Not only has Malian Islam not hindered democracy, it has supported and facilitated it. After presenting a review of Mali’s religious background and a synopsis of the events of its democratic transition, the paper argues that Mali’s non-confrontational brand of Islam has helped consolidate the democracy for two reasons. One reason is the open support shown for democracy by Muslims and their leaders, especially their choice to remain politically neutral with respect to political support for individuals and parties. The other reason is the involvement of Muslim religious leaders and Islamic associations, along with other elements of civil society, in decision-making processes and conflict resolution, notably in the Tuareg rebellion in Mali’s northern regions and the decade-long educational confrontation known as the ‘school crisis’. No Islamic agenda or movement figured as a cause in either of these crises, but Muslim leaders, reflecting Mali’s spirit of tolerance in religious and ethnic relations, were involved in their resolution.


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