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   Mali clerics refute extremist version of sharia

The stoning of a young couple is just the latest in a string of atrocities committed against Malian civilians by religious extremists.

Mali returned to the "dark ages" this week.

For four months, the Ansar Al-Din Islamists and MUJAO terrorists who seized northern Mali have been whipping local residents for violating their strict version of sharia law.

On Sunday (July 29th), they decided that a young couple had to die.

"The government learned with indignation and astonishment of the stoning to death of a couple in Aguelhok by the extremists occupying northern Mali," said a statement from the communication ministry. "The government severely condemns this dark-age practice and assures that this act will not go unpunished."

The incident, witnessed by hundreds of Aguelhok residents, comes less than two months after a Timbuktu couple received one hundred lashes for having a child out of wedlock.

Ansar Al-Din forced 23-year-old Hamaradane and his girlfriend Zeboul to get married on the same day that they were flogged in public.

"The couple still live in Timbuktu. And the same practices are still in use against the population," said local journalist Yaya Tandina.

"People here are forced to accept this reality because they do not want violence," he added. A girl from the village of Goundam was recently flogged for wearing a dress that Ansar al-Din radicals deemed "indecent".

"They chased the girl and flogged her in front of her own children and family," Timbuktu mayor Halle Ousmane told Magharebia.

This incident resulted in a demonstration by the city's population demanding the departure of militant groups.

Citizens have had their hands amputated for theft, or suffered beatings for smoking in the streets or selling alcohol. In Gao, another young man was sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery, local activist Edom Ag Mohammed told Magharebia.

For some local religious leaders, enough is enough.

"Some of the clergy fear the wrath of the Islamic groups, but others are openly rejecting such practices, including the scholars of Kidal," said National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) official Atay Ag Mohammed.

Dawood Ag Mohammed, the imam of the Belferandi Mosque in Timbuktu, says that the perpetrators of these acts are convinced that it is "God's law".

"We as Muslims cannot object to the law of God, but we do not agree with them in the way they interpret it," he says.

"Yet what can we do, since we are powerless? Nothing. All that people can do is to escape Timbuktu, and so many families have fled," the imam adds.

Intellectuals of northern Mali also condemn these practices.

According to Abu Bakr Al-Ansari of the Kal Ansar tribe of Timbuktu, "flogging, stoning and discretionary raids on homes and shops have become daily scenes".

"Harassment in the name of Sharia"

"The life of the population has become a dangerous nightmare due to these practices in the name of religion. These acts carried out by Ansar al-Din and other terrorist groups alien to the region are criminal in every sense of the word," he tells Magharebia.

"What is happening is harassment of people in the name of Sharia," he explains. "It's really just a settling of accounts with the inhabitants of Timbuktu and Gao, two cities that refused to submit to the control of Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, a descendant of Kidal."

"Therefore the issue of Sharia is more political than religious," Al-Ansari adds.

The people of Azawad are of the moderate Maliki school, he explained, adding that they share the "same doctrine and the same history with the people of the Sahara".

As a result, he said, "we cannot refuse the application of Islamic law, provided that it is applied with justice and moderation, as was the case throughout the history of the region for centuries".

That is not the case now, however, which "is why most reputable scholars reject these practices".

Religious scholars from across the region, meeting last month in Mauritania, also denounced what they called the "hands that are spoiling Islam and its sacredness".

"This constitutes a risk to the entity of the Muslim Ummah in its current state," the Forum for Moderation said in its closing statement on July 19th.

"The absence of peace and stability is tearing apart the Islamic brotherhood at its core. It also threatens the historic dimension of the nation and its physical and moral sanctity," the forum said.

Haddmin Ould Salek, the imam of Abbas Mosque in Nouakchott, told Magharebia, "The practices of radical Islamist groups in northern Mali are not compatible with the true teachings of Islam and are highly provocative to the peoples of that region, where Sufi Islam was widespread for hundreds of years."

The violent approach taken in Mali also runs counter to the history of Islam, he noted. "Islam spread gradually, taking into consideration the mentality of the society, and did not begin by applying penal laws," the imam said.

"The use of violence against the population...is wrong and repulsive, and will cause counter-results, because the provocation of any religious group is contrary to the teachings of Islam," the imam said.

"It also opens the door to internal fighting that could undermine any desire for reform," he warned.

By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia

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Notes: Opinions expressed here are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Muslims Debate.
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