23 Aug 2012

Mali music falls silent as Islamist repression bites

As midnight struck and the 20th century became the 21st, I stood on a sand dune outside Timbuktu and watched a Malian band entertain an audience of Europeans.

The most famous Malian musician, Ali Farke Toure, was playing the fanciest hotel in town. The place was full of Italians, French, Germans and British people who thought that Timbuktu – the very name is romantic – would be a funky place to see in the new millennium.

In later years, Timbuktu hosted the Festival in the Desert, launching the career of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and attracting western musicians like Robert Plant.

No chance of anything like that now. Since 2003, al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb has captured some 20 foreigners in the area, making northern Mali one of the most dangerous places in the world for westerners.

In June, they and their local allies Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) and MUJAO (“Movement for Unity and Jihad”) took control of Timbuktu and other major centres. This week northern Mali’s new rulers banned secular music as “satanic”. From now on, private radio stations in the north may only play the recitation of Koranic verses.

The jihadis’ most notorious act came in July when they demolished Timbuktu’s ancient Sufi shrines, calling them “idolatrous”. Local people protested to no avail.

The Islamists have said they will not destroy the hundreds of thousands of 15th- and 16th-century Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu, but conservationists fear that in the chaos and violence sweeping the region, some manuscripts will end up on the open market and be lost.

The Director of the National Museum, Samuel Sidibe, has a plan to protect the nation’s Islamic and pre-Islamic treasures, should the jihadis head south.

Such a draconian interpretation of Islam has shocked Malians, yet it has been creeping in for several years. The Saudi government has funded the building of mosques in the capital, Bamako. The head of the High Islamic Council, Mohammed Dicko, who is negotiating with the jihadis in the north, studied in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is a rising trend.

A new government, announced on Tuesday, has a Religious Affairs Ministry for the first time, the result of lobbying by those in Bamako who favour compromise with the Islamists.

Malians, 98 per cent of whom consider themselves Muslims, and some of whom mix Islam with traditional animist beliefs, fear for the future.

“We’re scared of the new Islamic wave,” said Dagaba Traore, one Mali’s Hunters. When I met him in his village north of Bamako, he was wearing traditional bark cloth, with fetishes or talismans round his neck, and carrying a Boer War-era flintlock rifle.

“When they see us wearing Hunters’ clothes, they won’t regard us as Muslims. They’ll automatically think we’re infidels who cannot know Allah. But I say our external appearance is different from what we feel inside.”

A group of hip-hop artists in Bamako, who call themselves Les Sofas de La Republique – “warriors of the Republic” – expressed similar fears to me.

As yet the Islamists have not moved south, but they already control two-thirds of the country. In an interview with a Swiss newspaper on Monday, Senda Ould Bouamama, the Ansar Dine spokesman made their intentions clear. “We are already an Islamic state and the Taliban of Afghanistan are our model,” he said.

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This  is one of a series of three articles on Mali by Lindsey Hilsum:

Gaddafi, Mali and the Tuaregs: the law of unintended consequences

Mali: the great democracy that never was?

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum