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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Mali's Muslim majority enters political fray
Buses and pedestrians arrive at Muslim campaign meeting
Malians are flocking to the Muslim message
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By the BBC's Joan Baxter

Fanned by open-air concerts and public rallies, a new political constituency is emerging in Mali.

As six million voters prepare to elect a new president on 28 April, Mali's Muslim majority have been making sure their voice is being heard.

And it boils down to numbers.

We want television programmes to educate the youth, not to corrupt them

Imam Mamoud Dicko

With 95% of Mali's population Muslim, Islamic leaders are saying that the next president will be chosen by this Muslim majority.

Imam Mamoud Dicko, who heads a group of 20 Islamic associations, says they have given a list of 30 demands to all 24 presidential candidates:

"We will put our votes behind the candidates who support our demands.

"We want the law enforced that prohibits bars and dubious hotels in residential neighbourhoods.

"We want television programmes to educate the youth, not to corrupt them.

"And we want the family laws that oblige a woman to obey her husband to be enforced."

Black chador

In the past year, Mali's Muslim majority had been making angry noises about foreign interference and calling the government anti-religious.

And perhaps for the first time in Mali's very long and tolerant history of Islam, their voices are becoming more strident.

The signs are everywhere:

Woman wearing black chador
Chadors are becoming more common

Men mostly clad in long prayers robes, and the women in long traditional Malian dresses, their hair covered by white headscarves.

But a surprising number of women have chosen the full black chador that leaves only their eyes exposed.

In the capital, Bamako, they flock to the Palais de la Culture to hear what Mali's most powerful Islamic leaders have to say about Islam and the upcoming presidential elections.

And there is plenty to talk about.

The current head of state, Alpha Oumar Konare, is coming to the end of his second and final term in office, and is ineligible to run.

For the past ten years, President Konare has earned high praise from the international community for his compliance with structural reforms in the Malian economy.

He has always been quick to echo western values and ideas to please important donor nations, which contribute heavily to this impoverished country on the edge of the Sahara desert.

Defying God

But in Mali, where poverty is acute, his policies have not gone down well with the Muslim majority whose leaders resent the growing foreign influence - not just in the economic arena, but also in the country's social and religious affairs.

In campaign rallies around the country, the message is almost threatening.

Imam Mamoud Dicko
Dicko accuses the government of bowing to western interests

Islamic leaders denounce the poverty, corruption and falling educational standards seen in Mali in the 10 years since the arrival of multi-party democracy.

For them, western praise of Mali's democracy as an "African model" means nothing.

They say that any Muslims who defy their choice of presidential candidates will be defying God.

Speaking in the local Bambara language, Imam Thierno Hady proclaims that if he were president, there would be no more theft in Mali.

He makes a gesture with his right hand to refer to laws that punish thieves by cutting off their hands.

The move towards Islam seemed to have gained more momentum soon after the 11 September attacks on the United States, when Mali's Muslims embraced Osama Bin Laden and castigated their government for supporting the US-led war against global terrorism.

Islamic backlash

Up until a month ago, thousands of vehicles and motorcycles in Bamako sported large images of Osama Bin Laden.

Then, one day, the police seized the vehicles and removed those stickers, infuriating drivers.

ancient mosque
Mali has had 1,000 years of tolerant Islam

Muslim youths say such actions indicate western interference in Mali's affairs, which only fan the flames of a possible Islamic backlash.

On the campaign trail in Timbuktu, once a world centre for Islamic scholarship, Mamoud Dicko and other Islamic leaders say that they are not questioning the secular state or the tolerant Islam they preach in Mali.

But they say the next president will be the one Mali's Muslim majority chooses, not one chosen to please the west.

With 24 men vying with each other for presidential office, and Islamic pressure groups influencing the 95% Muslim majority, observers agree that religion has entered the political and electoral fray in Mali.

See also:

15 Apr 02 | Africa
Timbuktu - city of legends
14 Sep 01 | Africa
Malian Muslims flex their muscle
22 Nov 00 | Africa
Mali's monumental folly?
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