Ndjamena — After taking control of northern Mali, Islamist groups imposed Sharia law, a religious penal code with severe punishments such as hand amputation for stealing and public flogging for fornicators. Chad, another country in the region with a strong Muslim community, is divided on the issue.
Mahamat Abderaman, a Chadian living in the capital Ndjamena, grew up as a Muslim and is a devout follower of the Islamic faith. When he got news that Islamist groups were destroying mausoleums in northern Mali, which shocked many around the world, Abderaman said he was indifferent. "I am surprised that a predominantly Muslim country like Mali has mausoleums. What can the dead do for the living?" he says calmly.
Beyond the destruction of the mausoleums, many Muslims acknowledge that most of the punishments inflicted by Ansar Dine, the Islamist group in northern Mali, are found in the Qur'an and therefore in accordance with Islam.
"Amputating the hand of thieves and killing homosexuals is in accordance with Islamic law. It's in the Qur'an. Fornicators are to be flogged. I don't see anything wrong with the Islamists implementing Sharia in Mali," explains Al Hadj Youssouf Mahamat, a businessman.
Abdallah ben Abdallah, another Chadian Muslim agrees: "Any transgression of Islamic law carries a capital punishment. That's the rule. I don't understand why populations in northern Mali are protesting against the Islamists, who are only implementing the word of Allah."
But there are also Muslims saying that, although the Qur'an prescribes specific punishments for various crimes and violations, it is high time Islamic practices were modernised. Engineer Naim Kadallah is against the distinction made by Islamists in northern Mali. "This is truly unacceptable, because Islam is not limited to Mali. The religion is also present in Chad and all over the world. Why is it that such abominations are practiced only there?" he wonders.
"The Qur'an does prescribe hand amputation for thieves and stoning of homosexuals, but times have changed," says Kadallah. "The religion needs to be modernised to be more in tune with society."
In fact, many young Muslims' understanding of Islam differs from that of the "extremists" in northern Mali. Having grown up in an open society where television, the internet and other mass media influence their daily lives, they are more flexible in their beliefs. A number of faithful practising Muslims consume alcohol, have sexual relations before marriage and listen to music. A wave of modernism they hope will touch their religion.
Sharia not to be imposed
Some Muslims, like Ahmat Taha who works at the ministry of environment, believes "that law should not be applied to people of a different faith than ours." He adds: "That's not acceptable. And the real problem is that we don't know their objective. Muslims as well as Christians are being killed."
Mahamat Nour Hamid, a fellow Muslim, agrees. "Islam does not force anyone to embrace the religion. In fact, Islam exhorts Muslims to live in peace with people of other faiths. The Sharia is a choice not an imposition. It's up to the population to decide whether to implement it or not. It is not up to the whims of a bunch of individuals. It should not be imposed," he says.
Islamists are accused of politicising Islam. "I think they are terrorist group fighting for political power. It has nothing to do with Islam," denounces Hamid. He calls for tolerance, mentioning Chad as an example: "Catholics from the Biblical Alliance exchange wishes with Muslims during their respective celebrations. Even at the time of the Prophet, they were not all Muslims. Yet, everyone paid taxes."
So, amidst the heated debate, Hamid chooses to be positive. He is convinced the Islamists will not find many supporters of their methods and prefers to see the bigger picture "because we all worship a single God called Allah," he concludes.