By Christine Smith
Recently, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants have created political chaos in the previously stable West African country of Mali by successfully gaining control of the country through a coup. The United Nations passed a resolution roughly one month ago on October 12th stating that the militants renounce power in Mali within 45 days. Little positive progress, however, has been made. Several international actors, including the United States, France, and Algeria, have been in discussion about the growing necessity for international action. While losing the country to Al Qaeda-linked militants is an obvious security threat both to surrounding countries and to the entire international community, the militants’ presence is significantly impacting Mali’s economy and culture as well.
In an effort to replace Mali’s Africanized version of Islam with the traditional version that is more commonly seen throughout the Middle East, the Islamic militants have decided to ban all forms of secular music and all things “un-Islamic” in the northern part of the country. As a result, the militants in the region have dealt a major blow to Mali’s music and tourism industries. This seemingly minor incident has in reality caused major repercussions throughout the country.
A country that has a rich history of music that includes the singer Salif Keita, the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and the legendary kora player Toumani Diabete, Mali has created a vibrant tourism industry out of the legendary music the country produces. Further, Mali has made its mark in the international community as one of the premier music destinations on the planet. Western artists, including U2’s Bono and the British band Blur’s Damon Albarn, have flocked to Mali to collaborate with Malian musicians and immerse themselves in Mali’s rich music scene.
Banning secular music in northern Mali, therefore, has amounted to a significant economic setback to the region. Because of the ban, northern Malian music has been forced underground or out of the country and into neighboring states, resulting in the largest income-producing industry in Mali being eliminated. Malian music, in fact, accounted for two to four percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 and is believed to have an even greater impact on Mali’s current GDP. An even bigger economic consequence of banning secular music, however, is the impact it will have on the developing economy. As the country has demonstrated in recent years, the impact of culture on economic development in Mali is huge. Music and other profitable aspects of Malian culture have created more jobs and economic markets both for the state and for its citizens, which consequently has helped grow the national economy. Removing music from Mali’s economy is therefore shaping up to be a huge financial blow to one of the ten poorest nations in the world.
Without secular music, Malians have also lost their ability to publicly express their dissatisfaction with the current political situation. The loss of the traditional way of vocalizing political disapproval, albeit in an indirect manner through their secular music, however, reaches beyond politics. By banning secular music, the Islamic militants have created a cultural war against Malians and their identities. After all, it can only benefit the militants to attack and forcefully remove a culture they view as “un-Islamic.” Consequently, Malians are currently living in silence or facing arrest and possible death if they choose to voice political objections.
A continuation of the militants’ policies will certainly lead to a drastically different Mali than the one that has existed up until the March coup. Not only will the country’s culture significantly change and its economy weaken, but Malians will also continue to lack their pre-coup right to express their opinions and act as the democracy that they have been since 1992. It is essential that the international community follows through on its desire to remove the Islamic militants from Mali. Doing so will both benefit Malians and protect their rights and culture as well as benefit the international community and its security.
Facts obtained from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Jerusalem Post, and The Independent.
Christine Smith recently received her B.A. in Political Science and two minors in African Studies and Anthropology from Boston University. She is currently an editor for The Generation as well as a first year M.A. in African Studies student at UCLA with a focus on human rights issues in East Africa.