The politics of Islam in Mali: Can religion be part of the answer?

Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst, International Crisis Group
The question of the place and influence of religion on society and politics is delicate. In Mali, a West African country in which 95% of the population is Muslim, Islam is a fact of life. Fears are growing in some quarters that religion could expand to occupy more space as a driver of social norms and wield undue influence. It does not have to be so, for rather than being a danger, religion can serve as a stabilising force in this crisis-ridden country.

Mali is still reeling from the 2012 crisis when self-proclaimed jihadi armed groups took centre stage. The 2012 events, compounded by other atrocities committed in West Africa and further afield, have quite understandably heightened the debate about the place of Islam in the state and society. Some Muslim leaders insist they have the right, and even the duty, to engage in major public debates and even to get involved in politics, including giving voting instructions and standing for office. This is causing concern among some Malians and certain Western partners too.

For now, the perception that Muslim leaders have an excessive influence over political life in Mali is somewhat exaggerated. Religious groups undeniably have become powerful lobbyists, using their important role within society and capacity to mobilise to their advantage. Their motives are diverse, from promoting moral values to defending financial interests in a quest for power or influence. But so far, religious leaders have not taken Malian politics hostage, and the country’s political class and non-Islamic civil society show little or no sign of ceding too much political space to religious groups.

Mali’s collapse in 2012 calls for serious rebuilding of the state, which the country has so far failed to engage. Defining the place of religion in society and politics is a delicate challenge but one that must be faced up to in this endeavour. The crisis highlighted the lack of regulation of religious activities, which many Malians deplore. But the need to better regulate religion’s role should be balanced against heavy-handed government involvement as this could backfire. Official religions that co-operate with a state perceived as being in the pay of the West could find themselves discredited. It could drive more support behind informal, non-regulated, religious movements.

Instead, the answer may lie in minimum regulation of the religious sphere, focusing on two areas where there appears to be consensus: outlawing hate speech and improving the training received by imams. The government should also work towards a more constructive partnership with religious authorities by bringing their representatives into Mali’s reconstruction in the areas of social regulation and conflict resolution. With the credibility they enjoy among the population, religious leaders can play a mediation role, especially when social crises or intercommunal violence erupt. They can also help fight dangerous radical ideology: religious authorities should be viewed as partners, working not just alongside the authorities, but at the heart of strategies to counter extremism.

In Mali, the challenge is to define and delimit the place of Islam in the state and society so that it can serve as a force for stability and progress. It is up to Mali’s people to work together and find ways to meet the challenge.

The views expressed are the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD or the Sahel and West Africa Club.

Links and references

See the International Crisis Group’s report, “The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality”, published on 18 July 2017 at

International Crisis Group, (2016), “Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?” at

International Crisis Group (2016), “Burkina Faso: Preserving the Religious Balance” at

The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North

Visit the Sahel and West Africa Club at

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