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mardi 29 janvier 2013

Who gets to interpret religion?

Hannah Armstrong, who is a Institute of Current World Affairs fellow in the Sahel and someone your blogger follow enthusiastically on Twitter (), wrote another interesting piece on Mali in the New York Times.

She contrasts the violent, authoritarian attitude of the various jihadi groups in Northern Mali with the gentler tactics of the High Council of Islam:
who uniformly decry violence and defend the importance of working alongside the Malian state — unlike the jihadis up north. And unlike the Gulf-inspired radicalism of those jihadis, the H.C.I. groups together Muslims of wide-ranging ideologies. Some represent the local brand of Sufism, for which music, fetishes and gender mixing are quite ordinary; others subscribe to the conservative Wahhabi strain of Islam, an import from Saudi Arabia.
While some of the comments on her piece took issue with the statements of one of the cheikhs she interviewed, the role that religion takes in public life is an important and complicated issue, throughout the MENA region (and related territories, like Mali). The controversy in Mali over celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday mirrors similar tensions elsewhere, much as religious firebrands destroy saints' mausoleums from Timbuktu to Tunis.

While recent turmoil in Egypt has tarnished Western views of the Muslim Brotherhood, this doesn't mean that religious leaders can't play a useful and constructive role in the civil society of Muslim countries. However, these leaders are a varied group and there is no single version of what Islam is, or how religion and politics should co-exist. Hannah's points are interesting, and the questions her piece raises about the Arab-centric nature of Muslim discourse and its racist undercurrents warrant further investigation:

One Malian recently tweeted ... : “These Arab Islamists are racists for they only conceive of Islam as being by Arabs, blacks are just second class.” He, like most black southern Malians, who overwhelmingly support the intervention, do not grant Arab countries a monopoly on the interpretation of Islam. They favor their own version, leavened by pluralism and compromise-seeking.

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