Gulf cash fuels fight for Muslim hearts and minds in Africa
Critics say donors champion stricter Wahhabi school of Islam that inspires militancy, jihadism
By KATARINA HOIJE
Ibrahim Kontao is busily signing cheques as men and women line up outside his air-conditioned office in the Malian capital, Bamako, to ask him for donations and help with their children’s school fees.
Mr Kontao, who studied theology in Saudi Arabia, heads Mali’s wealthiest Islamic charity, known as Al-farouk, which channels $3 million a year from donors in Gulf Arab states and Turkey to open mosques, Koranic schools and health clinics in rural areas starved of social services.
Critics say it and other groups are championing the stricter Wahhabi school of Islam that inspires Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militants who claim attacks across West Africa.
“They gain people’s trust by taking care of their needs,” said Brema Ely Dicko, the 36-yearold head of the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Bamako. “Today you see women wearing niqabs, something that used to be very foreign to Mali.”
Mali teetered on the brink of collapse when a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents, bolstered by an influx of weapons from Libya, seized the north in the wake of a 2012 coup that left the army in tatters.
The militants shocked the international community with a series of attacks in Timbuktu on the centuries-old buildings with tombs of holy men, turning sites into piles of rubble because they were considered idolatrous by the insurgents. The International Criminal Court, in an unprecedented ruling in 2016, jailed the leader of the raids for nine years.
Despite the deployment of a 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission and a French military force, jihadist attacks have spread to Mali’s centre, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of troops and civilians.
The insecurity has spilt over into Burkina Faso, Niger and Ivory Coast and prompted the creation of a 5,000-strong West African force that is to strengthen border patrols. Saudi Arabia itself has joined the battle against the militants, pledging 100 million euros ($113 million) to the force known as G5 Sahel.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government has failed to maintain basic services in remote rural areas as it focuses spending on the military.
That is where the Gulfbacked charities step in to offer an alternative to the state.
“Many people are struggling; I want to do what I can to help,” said Mr Kontao at the Al-farouk charity. “We are al- Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government has failed to maintain basic services in remote rural areas as it focuses spending on the military. That is where the Gulf states-backed charities step in to offer an alternative to the state. Muslim leaders have long vied for political influence in Mali. In recent years, they have publicly thrown their weight behind presidential candidates, helped raise foreign donor money, halted Bills aimed at strengthening women’s rights and mediated talks between the government and insurgents.
The Islamic centre legendary town as nation. and a mosque in Timbuktu, Mali. The UN cultural organisation, Unesco, listed the an endangered world heritage because of the deadly unrest hitting the West African