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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Malian Muslims flex their muscle
Tahara Drave, President of Islamic Women's Association
Muslim women leaders defend female circumcision
By Joan Baxter in Bamako

On a Sunday morning in the Malian capital, Bamako, while the tiny Christian minority attend church services, aboout 40,000 Muslims gather for a revivial meeting.

Devout Muslims from all over the country - the women veiled and the men in long flowing gowns or boubous normally worn for Friday prayers - crammed into the vast auditorium of the Culture Palace on the banks of the River Niger.

You are the king-makers. The presidential elections are in your hands

Alhaji Ousmane Samake
They were meeting for the first ever national conference of the collective of 20 Islamic associations.

One after another, the Imams took to the podium to warn their followers of what they see as the danger of foreign interference in their political affairs.

They also warned of foreign influence in the social field, which they said, was eroding morality and the family in Mali.

Secular state

They said the Muslim majority, 95% of the population in Mali, had sat quietly for too long while the government of President Alpha Oumar Konare allowed the secular state to become, they alleged, "anti-religious".

The imams charged that, "foreign ideas were being imposed on them" by donor countries. It was time, they added, for Mali's Muslims to get involved in and take control of politics.

Ancient mosque
Mali has had a thousand years of tolerant Islam

"You are the king-makers!" shouted Alhaji Ousmane Samake to thunderous applause.

"The presidential elections in 2002 are in your hands. Wait for word from your Islamic leaders on candidates who espouse Islamic values."

This was the third mass Muslim rally this year in the Malian capital.

Sudden rise

But unlike the first two, this one was attended by leaders of a dozen of the country's most powerful political parties.

Some politicians admit that they have been taken by surprise by the sudden rise in Islamic fervour in their country.

For the past thousand years, moderate and tolerant Islam has been deeply rooted in Mali.

But opposition leader Mountaga Tall says it is natural for Muslims to react to a "government that seems unaware of local, cultural and religious realities."

He added that "Alpha Oumar Konare governs the country only to please the outside world."

Imam Mamoud Dicko, who heads the umbrella group of Islamic associations that called the meeting, says the Islamic renewal is a natural reaction to what he sees as meddling in Mali's affairs by particularly, the United States.

Tolerant Islam

The outside world, he fears, has tended to take Mali for granted as a bastion of tolerant Islam and stability in a region plagued by wars.

Dicko says there is no intention to dispense with the secular state but, he admits that he, as a devout Muslim, cannot deny that his ultimate wish would be the imposition of Sharia law.

He sees nothing dangerous in the newfound Muslim interest in swaying political opinion in Mali.

Imam Mamoud Dicko
Imam Dicko says the US is meddling in Mali's affairs

According to Mr Dicko, the only way to prevent extremism that leads to terrorism is to ensure "justice and equity" in the world.

He deplores the devastating loss of life in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

But he cautions that if the US opts for retaliatory strikes or "increased oppression of Muslims" anywhere in the world, the catastrophic attack in the United States "may just be the beginning".

It would seem that to keep Malian Muslims as tolerant and as moderate as they have been for centuries, the govermentment may need to choose its foreign friends carefully.

See also:

10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mali
25 Jul 01 | Africa
Timeline: Mali
22 Nov 00 | Africa
Mali's monumental folly?
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