Soft Salafization in the Sahel

Many see Salafism as rigid and unbending, but in the Sahel, political conditions force its proponents to be smart and savvy.

Mosque in Kakalodaga, Mali. Image credit @upyernoz on Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Salafism—often defined as a literalist, rigid, and ultraconservative version of Sunni Islam—is becoming more flexible in Sahelian countries such as Mauritania and Mali. Leading figures in the movement no longer appear completely committed to Salafi exclusivism; some of their attitudes reflect  a kind of “post-Salafism.” Meanwhile, ordinary sympathizers’ degree of affiliation to the movement has become fluid and unclear. Sahelian Salafism was most clearly demarcated and most aggressive against Sufis and others in the 1980s and 1990s. By the 2010s, Salafi identities had become less stark and distinct than they were a generation ago. Salafis—or “Wahhabis,” as their detractors call them in the Sahel—have real influence, but like other political actors, they are forced to adjust to a confusing and constantly shifting political environment.

In my chapter for the recently published collection Wahhabism and the World, I argue that the Malian preacher Mahmoud Dicko and the electoral movement Sabati 2012, are among the main exponents of this kind of politics. During the campaign for the 2013 presidential elections, the mercurial Dicko allied himself with the candidate and eventual winner, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK). The relationship between Dicko and IBK dated back years, and Dicko had supported Keïta’s 2002 presidential bid.

To support IBK, Dicko helped create Sabati 2012. The group was headed by Moussa Boubacar Baha, a young activist with degrees in law and civil engineering. Sabati 2012 was cast in the Francophone media as the electoral vehicle for Wahhabis in Mali. Yet, as some of that very same media coverage noted, Sabati 2012 also benefited from the spiritual and financial patronage of Mali’s most prominent Sufi leader, Mohamed Ould Cheicknè, popularly known as the Chérif of Nioro du Sahel. Already by the 2013 elections, Dicko was interested in forging Salafi-Sufi coalitions in the service of political interests.

Sabati 2012’s memorandum, which it asked candidates to endorse, did not contain any specifically Wahhabi provisions; in fact, much of the memorandum focused on policy recommendations for areas such as public health, conflict resolution, and the justice sector. The few recommendations explicitly relating to religion focused on creating training centers for imams and preachers, fully involving religious leaders in the organization of Hajj, extending public financing of political parties to core religious structures , and making the first day of the hijri year a public holiday. The memorandum also included a section on “our ethical and moral values,” where “our” was presumably intended to mean the Malian nation rather than just Sabati 2012. These recommendations included calls to regulate bars and brothels, forbid tobacco and alcohol advertising, and criminalize homosexuality.

Clearly, this was a conservative agenda but not necessarily an exclusively Salafi one. Here it is crucial to note that although Sufism and “moderate Islam” have become synonymous in the minds of many Western policymakers and journalists, many Sufis are deeply socially conservative. Malian Sufis are unlikely, for example, to call for the legalization of homosexuality or the toleration of sex work. The memorandum, moreover, did not advance explicitly Salafi positions on any of the major religious controversies that have divided Salafis and Sufis in West Africa and beyond,  such as whether to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, or whether it is permissible to visit the tombs of deceased shaykhs.

Within weeks of taking office in September 2013, IBK hosted King Mohamed VI of Morocco in Bamako. They signed two accords—one for the installation of a temporary field hospital in the capital, and another for the Moroccan state to train 500 Malian imams. The latter agreement was explicitly predicated on a valorization of traditionalist Islam, particularly its northwest African variant. Morocco’s ambassador to Mali explained, “We share the Maliki rite with Mali. So there is a perfect cohesion when it comes to religious practice of moderate Sunni Islam. It’s for us to train these imams according to the principles of tolerance relating to Islam.” Arguably, participation in the imam training program represented the Malian government’s tacit acceptance of the idea that Wahhabism was a core problem in the country.

The saga of IBK and Dicko is a long one, culminating in the cleric’s pivotal role in the summer 2020 protests that helped bring down the president. The point here, though, is that neither Dicko nor the organizations that he sponsored, such as Sabati 2012, are reducible to stereotypes about Salafis. Nor was it easy for Salafis to shape politics according to their desires—for all the seeming victories Dicko has had, there have also been defeats; for example, he has not been entirely pleased with post-2020 Malian politics.

In the Sahel, the renegotiations of Salafi identity at the level of the leadership and the laity are driven by multiple causes, among them: decisions by leading Salafi clerics to pursue alliances or accommodations with non-Salafis; exhaustion among clerics and followers with doctrinal controversies and religious exclusivism; and the growing sense that there are viable and meaningful positions in between exclusivist Salafism and traditionalist Sufism. The result is a spectrum of Salafi religio-political identities that are partly shaped by creed and political worldview, but also heavily shaped by individual, communal, and political contexts.

Further Reading