The Iranian-Saudi Proxy Wars Come to Mali
In schools, mosques, and cultural centers, Shiites and Sunnis are battling for African hearts and minds.
BAMAKO, Mali — In a country where two-thirds of the adults are illiterate, it is a privileged few who have the chance to study at the Mustafa International School.
Located in the western suburbs of Bamako, a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy, the college-level seminary has just 180 students — 150 men and 30 women. They engage in an intensive curriculum that encompasses theology, history, philosophy, Arabic, Farsi, and world religions. They work in the school’s computer suite, equipped with 12 desktop computers, and get three meals a day at the seminary’s expense. And they do it all under the watchful eyes of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose likeness gazes down on them from his portrait, which hangs above the bookshelves of the school’s library.
These young students are part of Mali’s tiny Shiite community: a group of about 10,000 families nationally, in a country where the Sunni majority makes up an estimated 95 percent of the population of 15 million.
They’re also the stuff of Saudi nightmares.
Historically, West Africa has had a tolerant approach to religious differences, shunning — at least until recently — the sort of Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalries that have plagued the Middle East in favor of a patchwork of beliefs that incorporate Sufism, Maliki Islam, and traditional animist practices. But Mali — home to seminaries with ties to Iran, like the Mustafa International School, and where diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this summer reveal that Saudi Arabia is scrambling to fund its own competing schools, mosques, and cultural projects — provides a case study in how the enmity between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam may be being spread, via Iranian and Saudi proxies, to places thousands of miles from the Middle East.
Unlike most of Mali’s private schools and universities, which charge hefty fees, the Mustafa International School selects students from outside the capital and gives them free room and board. Few of the students hail from Mali’s elite families; rather, they are selected via tests administered to Shiite youth across the country. The highest achievers are offered the chance to continue their study in Iran.
The school is able to afford such generous support for its students because it is backed by an Iranian university in Qom, a city considered holy by Shiite Muslims and famed for its Islamic learning. The state-run University of Qom provides funding and sets the school’s curriculum, which covers various schools of Islamic thought, as well as Shiite jurisprudence.
“The teaching is very good,” said Adam N’Diaye, a 22-year-old student at the facility who recently converted from Sunnism. He aims to become a teacher when he graduates. A quick survey of his classmates revealed that most of his colleagues are aiming to become imams and missionaries.
It’s unclear how many schools and seminaries in Mali have ties to the Islamic Republic or just how close these ties are. There’s also no direct evidence to indicate that schools like the Mustafa International School are necessarily part of a larger effort by the Iranian government to make Shiite converts. Officials at the Iranian Cultural Center in Bamako declined to give any details about the number of educational institutions to which they have ties; the Saudi-based paper Al Yaum has previously reported that the cultural center runs 10 schools in Mali. Other sources place the number around 13.
Iran and Mali have a warm, if limited, relationship. When Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Bamako and Timbuktu in 2010, he spoke in glowing terms about solidarity between the two countries and signed a raft of agreements on development aid and Iranian investment in agriculture and extractive industries. The Mustafa International School’s director, Mohamed Diabaté, who studied in Iran and maintains links with clerics there, makes appearances on Malian television to talk about his understanding of Islam. (He argues that the Tidjaniya school of Sufism common across West Africa has roots in Shiite, rather than Sunni, teaching.)
The presence of Shiism here isn’t something Saudi Arabia is taking lightly. Among the nearly 60,000 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on June 19 are a slew of documents detailing the kingdom’s fear of a “rising tide of Shiism” resulting from proselytization on the part of Saudi Arabia’s rival in the Middle East, Iran. Cables detailing specific Iranian charities, schools, and media outlets from Kazakhstan to Spain — as well as vague fears of “Shiite activities” elsewhere — show that Saudi diplomats see Shiism not only to be a vile heresy, but a movement inseparably tied to Iranian political clout. And even the smallest Shiite community is considered a threat.
“Despite the Iranian Embassy’s efforts [in Mali], there hasn’t been a lot of uptake, but it is possible that their thinking could spread in the future in a broader way and their Shiite activities could gain a base,” reads a cable from the Saudi Embassy in Bamako to the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh in early 2009. It recommends funding rival projects — mosques, schools, cultural programs, proselytization, and summer courses — to “strengthen the growing position of the [Saudi] kingdom” in Mali and promote Saudi Arabia’s image as “the protector of the noble Islamic faith.” It adds that this should be done “in a way that promotes peaceful coexistence between different ideologies and counters the Shiite spread.”
Mali offers a potentially rich source of converts to Shiism. “People in Mali love the family of the Prophet,” Diabaté said. The Tidjaniya Sufi order, which has a long history throughout West Africa, honors members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family as pure, devout individuals. It’s a small leap from that to the belief, fundamental to Shiism, that members of the Prophet’s family should have taken over leadership of the Islamic community upon his death. It’s a link that has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh.
“Iran is exploiting the Sufis’ love for the family of the Prophet in order to show Iran as a great Islamic nation that is an enemy of the infidels and supports all the Muslims,” reads the cable. “Many Malians don’t realize the truth of Shiite thinking: fanatical, racist, and the enemy of other Islamic doctrines.”
But though the cables ring of paranoia, the notion that Mali’s tiny Shiite community has outsized political significance and links to Tehran seems to have found traction among some Sunni locals.
“There are not even 1 percent of the population who are Shiite in Mali. But there is a political presence, run by the Iranians,” said Mahmoud Dicko, the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and one of the country’s most powerful clerics.
Dicko was among 30 senior Malian clerics who signed a 2008 open letter in support of influential Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s outspoken stance against Shiite evangelism. The letter warned of “the dangers of the rising tide of Shiism,” which aims to “turn Sunni societies Shiite, undermine their states, and impose Persian hegemony over them.”
Mali has raw memories of religious conflict. In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists linked to al Qaeda invaded the country’s northern half and imposed sharia law before being ousted by French forces. But a low-level insurgency has been rumbling on ever since. Militants have targeted the Malian army, U.N. peacekeepers, and foreign aid workers with drive-by shootings and roadside bombs. The extremist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a popular restaurant in Bamako in March and the killing of three soldiers in a village near the border with Mauritania in June.
Despite this, for most Malians the phenomenon of religious extremism is a foreign imposition. The fighters involved in the events of 2012 were from outside Mali, and the violence was an exception in a long history of religious tolerance here. Across West Africa, Sunni Islam, Sufism, and traditional animist practices have rubbed shoulders in relative peace for centuries.
One of Mali’s most prominent Baptists, Pastor Mohammed Yattara, is open about his apostasy, something that would be unthinkable across the Middle East and North Africa. Yattara converted from Islam to Christianity when he was 16. When he told his family he had become a Christian, his father disowned him and threw him out of the house. Yet the two stayed in touch until his father’s death, and Yattara’s act of leaving his faith has had few consequences for his personal security.
Among the Muslim majority, Sufi traditions and animist rituals remain important elements of religious practice. In poorer communities, few imams speak Arabic or are educated in the finer points of Islamic philosophy. Some fear that by funding schools, mosques, and much-needed infrastructure, foreign powers are creating divisions that once did not exist in this country, on the periphery of the Arab world.
Many in Dicko’s camp see institutions such as the Mustafa International School and the Iranian Cultural Center as a vehicle for Iranian political influence — an accusation Diabaté refuted, despite pictures of Khomeini in the school office, in the library, and on the back of his car.
“We will not accept the politicization of Islam,” he said. But he admitted that Shiites in Mali look to Iran for support in the face of Salafism. “Every state that represents a sect needs to protect its flock.”
Diabaté, sitting in a small office adjacent to the prayer hall and wearing the long brown robe and white turban of a Shiite scholar, explained how he “used to hate Shiites.” But in the late 1980s, he became part of a group of young scholars who participated in debates with Hassan Hambraze, then Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Bamako and son of a prominent Iranian cleric. In 1988, Hambraze was also responsible for sending a group of Malian students to the first Shiite school in West Africa. Diabaté converted and went on to study in Iran. On his return he became a prominent leader within Mali’s nascent Shiite community.
Today, he speaks of the country’s more hard-line Sunni leaders in conspiratorial terms: “The Salafi thinking is well known. They want to get into power and are planning for that. They plan to take control of the Islamic community.” After a pause, he added: “But we are not staying still. Everyone has their methods.”
Those methods seem clear: to proselytize and offer converts access to a good education and opportunities to travel and work in Iran. The Saudi strategy in Mali is more opaque (widespread rumors among Malians include tales of enormous checks coming from the Gulf to fund prominent Salafists). The diplomatic cables have thrown some light on Saudi activities in the country, which include funding for schools and preacher-training courses run by the Islamic University in Madinah and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
Mali’s minister for religious affairs, Thierno Diallo, says he recognizes that Malian governments have long turned a blind eye to foreign-backed religious projects. Despite the country’s deeply religious population, Mali’s secular constitution means that the state has kept mosques at arm’s length. And while the government is aware of large sums of money entering Mali from unknown sources, it has few resources to reliably track them.
“It’s not documented,” he said, “and there’s no transparency. That’s a serious problem.”
Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has explicitly promoted violence in Mali. Diabaté, along with his Sunni counterparts, makes it clear that “Shiites, like everyone else, know that extremist groups in the north show no mercy.” Yet the creation of previously nonexistent sectarian identities for political ends leads to divisions that become associated with political agendas.
Imam Baba Diallo, another member of the High Islamic Council of Mali, said he wants to organize interfaith dialogue between the different sects but has yet to find funding. He looks grave as he talks about the potential consequences of inaction.
“If we fail [to heal the divide], the next war will be between Sunni and Shiite,” he said.
(This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project.)
Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images