Mali is a landlocked republic in West Africa, bordered by the potentially volatile states of Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. Its capital is Bamako but its most famous city is Timbuktu, a former centre of commerce and Islamic learning which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a population of about 11,500,000 people. Mali is one of the few places in the world where Islam and democracy prosper together, but this situation is under threat from Saudi religious imperialism.
Economy and environment
Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a GDP per capita of US$240 in 2000. Despite a drought that has lasted for decades, most of the population relies on agriculture for subsistence, drawing water from the River Niger. The northern third of the country lies in the Sahara, which is expanding rapidly due to deforestation and agricultural involution on marginal lands. The River is central to the Malian economy, providing water for farming and fish which form the basis of the diet of people who live along it. The fish industry produces a surplus which is exported. However, drought and diversion of water for agricultre is leading to decreasing returns for the fish industry.
There is some hope for optimism in Mali's economy. The mining industry is growing, with gold accounting for 80% of mining activity - reserves of salt, uraniam and phosphates are also exploited. Gold is now Mali's third-largest export, after cotton and livestock. More importantly, reform of the agricultural sector has led to stabilised ceral production and cereal surpluses for the last five years. Mali's economy has been liberalised, providing incentives for production. Together with better management of the Office du Niger, which deals with irrigated land in the north, and reform programs in the south, agricultural yields are reaching new highs. Pastoral farming is however on the decline, as desertification has forced some nomadic herders to revert to farming.
Mali is a major recipient of foreign aid. China participates heavily in the textile sector and in infrastructure, and money is also received from the United States, the European Union, France, Germany and Canada. The Soviet Union was a large donor but now Russia's contribution is relatively small.
Mali was the core territory of three civilisations in the western Sudan - Ghana, Malinke and Songhai. All of these empires were important centres of commerce with access to both the Mediteranean and the Middle East. At their peak, these empires stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Nigeria. Their central town was Timbuktu, which came to be very wealthy due to being the focal point of traffic in slaves, gold, ivory and salt. Established in the tenth century, tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt the European probing of West Africa which eventually led to its downfall by providing an alternative customer in the slave trade. Morisco mercenaries in the pay of the sultan of Morroco eventually destroyed the last of these empires in 1591, hastening Timbuktu's decline. By the time Europeans arrived in the 19th century, it was just a collection of mud huts.
French military penetration of West Africa began in the 1880s, during the scramble for Africa. A theocratic Islamic empire which had been established in the region was destroyed, and in 1904 Mali was made a French colony. In 1920 it was constituted as French Sudan and made a part of French West Africa. Political activity was banned and a cloud descending over Mali until its independence in 1958, when it became the Republic of Sudan. There was a brief experiment at union with Senegal which ended in 1960, when it became the Republic of Mali. The young Republic declared a single-party state and set about economic development on socialist lines, marked by excessive nationalisation.
The performance of the economy was unsatisfactory, and a bloodless coup was staged in 1967 by Moussa Traoré. He led Mali through the turbulent '70s and '80s, facing drought, economic deprivation, coup attmepts and a border war with Burkina Faso. In the late 1980s he privatised unprofitable government enterprises under pressure from the country's creditors and the IMF. Demands for an open society grew, and the government eased its repression slightly but insisted the country was not ready for democracy. Observing events in Eastern Europe as the Cold War closed, the people disagreed, and student-led riots erupted in March of 1991. Government workers joined in and on March 26, 1991, a day much talked about in Mali, a coup led by Amadou Toumani Toure removed Traoré.
Unlike the leaders of most military coups, Toure kept to his word of overseeing a transition to democracy and staged Mali's first elections in 1992. When Alpha Oumar Konare, a historian and journalist, won the elections he handed over power peacefully. Konare went on to respect the constitutional restriction on presidential terms in 2002 by staging more elections, in which Toure won. Konare went on to head the African Union. Mali is according to the U.S. State Department free of human rights abuses and has all the attendent institutions of a democracy, including a free and vigorous press. There are still some reports of corruption in the state apparatus and government-owned enterprises.
Islam and tolerance
Mali is a remarkable and unlikely success story for democracy, and is seen by the U.S. as an example for the rest of Africa; it hence invests considerably in protecting Malian democracy. There is however a problem, as with freedom of speech comes freedom of religion, a fact which Saudi Arabia is taking advantage of. Ninety per-cent of Malians are Muslims, and they live in peace alongside Christians and followers of traditional faiths. Malian Islam is pluralist and tolerant, in strict distinction to the austere Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Due to geographical distance this would not seem to cause any problem, where it not for Saudi religious imperialism.
Saudi Arabia and America have at least two things in common. One is that they are rich states, and the second is that they invest this wealth in spreading their ideas around the world. In the case of the United States the ideas are democracy and free markets; in the case of Saudi Arabia it is a particular interpretation of Islam. The state religion of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, sprang from the Arabian desert in the 18th century and is widely regarded as intolerant due to its practice of branding fellow Muslims as apostates. It has strict rules which are at variance with 1400 years of mainstream Islamic history. One example is provided by an imam (prayer-reader) from Mali - "According to Wahhabism, you cannot go through someone, but should go directly to God. That's why we have a problem here--we have 333 saints."
All over the world, Saudi Arabia attempts to export Wahhabism into traditional Muslim societies, battling its arch-rivals Shiism and Sufism. They put especial effort in during times of war and strife, such as in Chechnya or during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. And they have now set their sights on Mali. Wahhabi mosques have sprung up all over the country, including sixteen in Timbuktu. In the north, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) has been increasingly active recently. It is an organisation which advocates the overthrow of Algeria's secular government, and has links to al-Qaeda. Salafis were the earliest companions of the Prophet, and is a name used by Wahhabists and other groups to describe themselves. Another group, the Pakistani Dawa al-Tabligh is operating in the north, trying to enforce bans on smoking and prayers to ancestral saints.
Mali is not in danger of becoming a fundamentalist state, but the success of extremists in the north impedes the growth of democracy and disenfranchises women. The extremists have enjoyed some success among the Tuareg, a group that once rebelled against the central government. Many people in the north feel neglected by the government and could turn to Islamic fundamentalism as a mode of protest. Furthermore, they are committing acts of extortion and terrorism. The GSPC kidnapped European tourists from Algeria and took them to Mali, and subsequently received $6 million from the German government for their release. This vastly enriched the group's funds and encouraged further kidnappings. The U.S. is becoming increasingly concerned that the Sahara could become a terrorist recruitment zone, and notes that the GSPC has sent fighters to Iraq.
The U.S. strategy is twofold - first, training regional forces to patrol the borders in the north and capture or kill the Salafists. Secondly, the U.S. is working to provide economic opportunity and development in the north, where unemployment is at eighty per cent. By providing schools, wells, and hospitals, the U.S. aims to provide hope and bolster the central government's image, along with its own. In negotiation with village chiefs, the U.S. Ambassador to Mali is working to provide aid which will help Malians maintain their traditional way of life against fundamentalist aggression and maintain a decent democracy and respect for human rights. As a pre-modern state, Mali needs support from outside to protect itself from Saudi religious imperialism and maintain its way of life and unique democracy.
'Democracy, Islam share a home in Mali', Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2004 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0412150328dec15,1,6447751.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed)
Microsoft Encarta 2002 Standard Edition
For an excellent if particularly zealous description of Saudi religious imperialism see Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism