Before the 2012 coup in Mali, for many observers Islam was just one taken-for-granted feature of the country’s rich cultural landscape with its spectacular mosque architecture and celebrated Arabic manuscript collections in such world heritage sites as Timbuktu. After Islamist groups successfully ousted secular Tuareg rebels and took control of the northern two-thirds of the country in the wake of the coup, many commentators – academics, journalists, and policy makers -- have tended to draw upon existing, albeit misleading ways of understanding Islam in Mali and further afield.
Shortly after the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, many asserted that Islamists in Mali were nearly all foreigners. According to the conventional wisdom most Malian Muslims practice “traditional” (or “traditionalist”) Islam in which the mystical tradition of Islam, Sufism, features prominently. In this way of thinking, Malian Muslims are usually assumed to be inherently peaceful and tolerant. It almost seems to follow that militant Muslims necessarily come from outside the region. Although non-Malians have been involved as members and in key leadership positions in two of the Islamist groups in northern Mali -- al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (known by its French acronym MUJAO), the appeal of such groups to some Malians and their active participation in advancing those group’s agendas challenges the view of a static “traditional” Islam in Mali. The fact that Malian Tuareg rebel leader Iyad ag Ghali -- one time member of Tabligh Jama’at, the world’s largest Muslim missionary organization, which spread widely in Mali -- founded one such group Ansar Dine (literally “defenders of the religion”) whose major stated objective is to impose sharia throughout Mali should help set such simplistic views aside.
In some ways, the current situation in Mali is strikingly similar to the French colonial period when colonial administrators attempted to identify good and bad Muslims and no Muslim cleric ever completely escaped suspicion. Before the coup any Malian Muslim, who sought to reform the way Islam is practiced or promoted a political project with Islam as its focus, has usually been labeled as Wahhabi, fundamentalist (intégriste in French), or, more recently, Islamist or Salafi. Today many seek to apply such imprecise labels to various actors in Mali.
The president of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Mahmoud Dicko, is regularly labeled a Wahhabi because of his conservative ideas about Islam and his activism, for example, against reform of the country’s Family Code. Given his proximity to certain Malians, who espouse ideas similar to those of AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine – calls for sharia and condemnation of Sufism and saints’ tombs as un-Islamic – as well as his muted criticism of Islamists in the north and attempts to mediate with them, he has come under greater scrutiny. Like most Malians, Dicko eventually supported the January 2013 French-led military intervention to dislodge Islamists from the north. In addition, he was publicly critical of Arab Muslim leaders and Muslim clerics outside Mali, who condemned the intervention as a form of colonialism or crusade against Islam. Nevertheless, many in and outside Mali remain suspicious that Dicko harbors Islamist objectives.
In contrast, Ousmane Madani Haïdara -- Mali’s most prominent Muslim preacher and head of the country’s largest and most successful modern-style Islamic organization (also called Ansar Dine) who encourages people to be better Muslims and good citizens -- was not only an outspoken critic of the Islamists and their harsh rule in the north, but also Malian Muslims from the south who share the Islamists’ ideas. Haïdara has even gone so far as to state publicly that such Islamists are not Muslims -- a position that is not uncontroversial. Such public statements certainly influenced those political leaders in France who recently decorated Haïdara with an official medal. This is also reminiscent of the colonial period when France made use of a coterie of decorated Muslim clerics, who endorsed its policies. But then as now a Muslim cleric’s support in Mali (or Iraq and Syria for that matter) is never a guarantee of success or such a religious figure’s authority in the long run. The rise of such Islamic organizations as Haïdara’s and the success and appeal of certain Islamist groups, not only in northern Mali, indicates in no uncertain terms how much more diverse, complex, and shifting the Islamic landscape is than most commentary about Islam in Mali suggests.
Benjamin Soares is an anthropologist and chair of the research staff at the Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden, The Netherlands.
 See, for example, Valérie Nivelon’s radio broadcast, “Mali : Terre d’Islam" on RFI (30 March 2012) where she also interviews the two major Muslim religious leaders mentioned below.
 See Otayek and Soares (2007) for a critique of this conventional way of writing about Islam in Africa more generally.
 As Mahmood Mamdani (2004) has argued, 9/11 exacerbated the tendency to look for good and bad Muslims.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2004. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon.
Otayek René and Benjamin Soares. 2007. Introduction: Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa. In Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa (eds) B. F. Soares & R. Otayek. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.