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Key findings
  • A majority (55%) of Malians say Islam should be their country’s official religion, and nearly half (46%) think Mali should apply Sharia law. Young and uneducated respondents are more supportive of imposing Sharia law than their older and more educated counterparts.
  • More than half (55%) of Malians dispute the idea that recent violence in the North of the country has shown that Islam can lead to excesses, and only 24% think that Islam preaches violence against non-Muslims.
  • Almost three-fourths (72%) of Malians assert that politicians use Islam to rule.
  • A majority of Malians believe that Islam restricts personal freedom (60%) and is incompatible with freedom of speech (55%). But only three in 10 (29%) think Islam is incompatible with economic and social progress.

Islam’s roots in Mali reach back centuries, and at times have nurtured social and political as well as religious hopes. During the colonial period, Islam became an instrument of resistance; the French responded by trying to play a moderate “black Islam” off against a more threatening “Arab Islam.” Islam played no major role in post-independence politics, but after democratization in 1991, during a phase of weak state authority, Islam helped fill a void in socioeconomic and political leadership (International Crisis Group, 2017).

In 2012, following a coup ousting President Amadou Toumani Touré and a Tuareg rebellion, various armed groups took control of northern and more recently central Mali. Among other things, these groups call for an Islamic state and the implementation of Sharia law (Laub & Masters, 2015; George, 2012). Recent developments have highlighted a new Islamic dynamic in Malian politics, which is being exploited by political elites as Muslim leaders become valuable political partners, especially during election periods (Haidara, 2015). Despite intense regional and international attention, Mali’s internal conflicts remain unresolved, and their long-term outcomes uncertain (BBC, 2013; Human Rights Watch, 2017; Lacher, 2013).

How do ordinary Malians view the role of Islam in their country? Data from the latest Afrobarometer survey show sharp divisions. A modest majority of Malians think Islam should be the country’s official religion, and almost half support the introduction of Sharia law. At the same time, a majority agree that Islam restricts personal freedom and is being used by politicians.

But Malians soundly reject claims that Islam promotes violence and is incompatible with social and economic progress.

Thomas Isbell

Thomas Isbell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa, University of Cape Town.

Fadimata Haïdara

Fadimata Haïdara is an economist from the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim (Germany) and is affiliated with GREAT in Mali.