Malian security officials show an extremist flag they said belonged to attackers in front of the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, Nov. 20, 2015. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

The Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, left at least 20 people dead and many more wounded. Three groups have claimed credit for the attack: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Mourabitoun (an extremist group with ties to AQIM) and Massina Liberation Front. Malian authorities report that arrests have been made since the siege. There was also a rocket attack on a United Nations base in northern Mali that killed three people early Sunday morning, for which a different Islamist rebel group — Ansar Dine — claimed credit.  As we continue to learn more about who was behind these attacks, questions swirl about Islam in Mali.

Here, I offer insights on the growth in Mali of “political Salafism” — attempts by conservative clerics to impose fundamentalist Islamic beliefs on society by asserting a role in the political sphere. I draw these insights from interviews I conducted last year with influential Salafist clerics, civil servants and Malians from different walks of life.

Who are Salafists?

Salafists advocate a literal interpretation of the Koran and desire to bring society’s moral code in line with Islamic principles. The academic literature views Salafism as a diverse global movement, which includes the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia but also extremist fighters such as Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.

Analysts estimate that 10 to 15 percent of Malians attend Salafist mosques. These relatively small figures underestimate the tangible influence of Salafism in Malian society. Salafists rely on generous financial and other support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Salafists’ theological training in the Middle East and their fluency in Arabic provide their clerics with a high degree of theological legitimacy. Arab financing enables Salafist mosques to provide basic social welfare services such as schools, clinics and jobs — something the Malian state has struggled to do since it gained independence.

Academics classify Salafists into three types according to how they achieve their goal of aligning society’s moral code with Islamic principles. Many Salafist clerics use peaceful missionary work (quietist Salafists). Others want to promote their views by participating in political competition (political Salafism). A third group seeks to achieve their goals with violent means (jihadist Salafism). Salafist clerics in Mali lean toward “political Salafism.”

How much political influence do Salafists wield in Mali?

The return of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s and the opening of Malian society to Western influences gradually led Salafist clerics to seek a more assertive role in politics. In the run-up to the 2002 elections, a group of clerics gathered in the Al Nuer mosque in Bamako to vet the religious credentials of all presidential contenders. The group was led by Mahmoud Dicko, Mali’s most prominent Salafist leader.

Today, Dicko is the president of the High Islamic Council, the official Muslim association in Mali. Dicko’s tenure has been tumultuous and his last reelection in 2014 as the council’s president caused many non-Salafist clerics to boycott the council. Their main complaint is that Dicko is abusing his position to fuse the religious and the political sphere — and my research suggests they’re right.

Under Dicko’s leadership, the council spearheaded a campaign against a progressive family law, which codified basic principles of gender equality. Mali’s national parliament passed the law in 2009, and Dicko mobilized 50,000 citizens in the national football stadium in Bamako to decry it as un-Islamic. Confronted with protests on an unprecedented scale, former president Amadou Toumani Touré vetoed the bill. Subsequently, Touré sought the approval of Dicko before presenting an amended bill. In my conversations with him, Dicko referred to the debate about the family law as a showcase of how Islam should guide Malian policymaking.

Many civil servants in the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of the Interior complained off the record about the combative manner in which Dicko seeks state financing for Islamic activities. Some claimed that Dicko verbally intimidated them to solicit funds for visits to Mali by foreign clerics. All officials pointed to the influence that Dicko holds over members of the government’s executive branch.

Dicko is not a lone Salafist engaging in partisan politics. In the run-up to the 2013 elections, Moussa Ba, a Dicko follower, formed SABATI, a Salafist lobbying group. Prominent Salafist clerics affiliated with SABATI invited all presidential candidates to the headquarters of the High Islamic Council. There, the candidates were quizzed about their knowledge of and commitment to Koranic principles. Ultimately, SABATI decided to support the candidacy of Ibrahim Keïta, the current president of Mali. It is impossible to verify to what extent Keïta’s election win is due to Salafist support. What is noteworthy, though, is that SABATI functionaries turned Friday prayers in mosques into a concerted political campaign.

Additionally, Dicko’s followers increasingly take up important political positions. The most prominent example is Mamadou Diamountani, the secretary general of the High Islamic Council. Diamountani became the head of Mali’s national electoral commission. In Mali, a variety of civil society groups and political party representatives jointly elect the national leadership of the electoral commission. To be elected as chairman, a candidate needs broad support across groups and parties. In our conversations, Diamountani revealed his dislike for democracy and the current Malian constitution. He was adamant that Malians must never accept a law that diverges from Koranic principles. On several occasions, Diamountani expressed his fondness of the United States’ evangelical movement and its influence in U.S. politics.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Dicko and his followers refuse to publicly condemn the occupation of Mali’s north by extremist forces during the first half of 2012. Prominent clerics in the occupied north condemned the jihadist violence as un-Islamic; Dicko failed to follow their lead. During the occupation, Dicko acted as mediator between the military junta in Bamako and the extremist forces in the north. His religious credentials enabled Dicko and others to be the leading force behind a humanitarian relief operation, which saved countless lives.

What does this mean for politics in Mali?

In the eyes of many Malians, the humanitarian relief during the 2012 occupation confirmed Dicko’s long-standing claim that religious leaders are more capable of serving the population than secular elites. In an earlier Monkey Cage post, Jaimie Bleck and her collaborators show that Malians are frustrated over corruption and bad governance. Dicko and other clerics thrive on but also stoke these sentiments. Ironically, violence brought about by Salafists in the north ultimately strengthened the presence and the political clout of political Salafists in the south.

Several qualifications are in order: The vast majority of Mali’s population adheres to peaceful and apolitical Islam, not political Salafism. Keïta hardly qualifies as religiously motivated and his support base transcends the religious quarter. Still, societal support for more Salafist influence in politics is growing. Dicko and his followers drive and respond to these demands. In doing so, they polarize and divide Mali’s faithful.

The political Salafists in Bamako are not behind the recent attacks on the Radisson. But they provide an ideology that opposes democracy and secularism — two major achievements of Mali’s political trajectory in the past two decades. Nonetheless, the international community should note that the forces seeking to destabilize Mali are not just isolated in far-flung northern regions but are actually not that far from the presidential palace.

Sebastian Elischer is assistant professor of comparative politics at the University of Florida. He is currently involved in a project on Salafism in West and East Africa. His research in West Africa was supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

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