2 January 2019

Mali: From Mali - a Lesson in Tolerance

Photo: Marco Dormino/UN
Drinking tea in Gao, Mali.
opinion

Stockholm/Rome — We all adhere to generalizations. For example, while reading and speaking about Muslims and Christians, sweeping opinions might easily become prejudices, particularily if we do not know any individual behind the labels. When I some years ago was working for a Malian NGO, I met a marabout and a Christian who proved that devotees to different religions might find mutual support in their individual beliefs.

Marabouts serve as imams, preaching in and taking care of mosques, they are generally teachers as well. Assisted by my friend Seydou, who translated his Mandé into English, I spoke with a respected marabout. After a while I found that Seydou only provided brief summaries of what the old man said. I asked him if he really translated everything. Seydou confessed that he found that the marabout "talked a lot of nonsense". When asked what he found specifically disconcerting Seydou answered that the marabout had stated that people were living on the moon. Since I had asked him about his opinion about fundamentalists' views of the Qur'an I wanted Seydou to repeat my question to the marabout, while trying to translate what he said, word by word. The marabout apparently answered:

- These young hotheads interpret the Holy Qur´an as if they are living on the dark side of the moon. Residing in the moon's cold shadow they cannot conceive the sun's light, nor feel it´s warmth. It´s not enough to read God´s words. In my life God is my sun and joy. Words are not enough for understanding the world. Time is a strict master. It taught me to discern what is right or wrong. The Holy Qur'an is truly the word of God, through it His Messenger, may peace be upon him, transmits God´s word to all people, in all places, all the time. By providing us with the words of God the Messenger, may peace be upon him, wanted us to change for the better, not for the worse. God gave humans free will and wants us to choose what is right. God is righteous. He does not want us to choose what hurt others. Fundamentalists do not believe in any free will. They do not know what love is. They do not want people to think. They want to stop us from making free choices. Accordingly, they place themselves above God. Only God is all-knowing and all-powerful. I believe God speaks to all people through The Holy Qur´an, but through my experiences and in my dreams He talks to me.

After our meeting with the marabout, Seydou made contact with a Christian man. We met him in the village school where he was president of the school association. I had been told that he was the only Malian Christian in the district and asked why he, in a country where almost everyone was a Muslim, had become a Christian. He explained that his father had been a Muslim, but also member of a Chiwara society, a traditional initiation organisation that through traditional teachings and rituals taught Bamana youngsters social values. While studying in Markala he had out of curiosity been reading the Bible. Feeling lonely and bewildered he eventually distanced himself from the way of life in his agrarian village. Soon he identified himself with Jesus, assuming that God´s son had told people that a person must be a conscious disciple, able to choose what to believe in and not blindly follow what others tell you to think and do.

He converted to Christianity, returned to his village and began working as a teacher. However, the villagers despised him and tried to dismiss him from teaching. For a man who was not white, rich, powerful and disrespectful, it would have been impossible to leave the faith of his ancestors. The teacher must be an idiot and on top of that outright dangerous.

When I asked him for how long he had endured being the only Christian in the village, the teacher answered that he had "followed Christ" for twenty years, considering it to be his duty to transmit his faith to others, even if villagers spat behind his back. It was the marabout I had been talking to earlier who changed the Christian´s life. One evening the marabout met with him, confessing:

- I realize you are a holy man. Someone as lonely and strong as you must have a robust faith. You have struggled for your beliefs, while I was born into my position. If you would doubt God, you don´t have to worry about losing people's respect, they don´t revere you anyway. In contrast, if I would expose doubts and weaknesses I may lose everything I have. People don´t believe in you, but they believe in me. When I suffer hard times, I have no one to turn to. However, I trust you. You know God, just as I assume I know God. I do not know if you need me, but I need you. I know that if I brought my doubts and worries to you, you would understand me. Likewise, when you are in trouble, you may come to me.

The two men became friends. During the Friday prayers, following their fateful meeting, the marabout sent for the Christian. In front of his congregation he declared: "This is my friend. He´s a holy man. If you respect me, you respect him". Since that time the Christian had become an integrated part of his society. I asked him:

- Are you now respected by everyone?

He smiled:

- Perhaps respected, but not entirely accepted.

Mali is a country with a vibrant, varied and ancient culture, though its fragile democracy has been threatened by coups and jihadist insurgencies. In 2013, upon the Government´s request, France intervened militarily, reconquering Islamist strongholds and in 2015 a United Nations´ monitored ceasefire was established between the Government and Tuareg separatists, though parts of the country remain tense while al-Qaeda-linked militants sporadically carry out attacks.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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