Friday morning, a handful of scholars gathered in a small UCSB conference room to hear Dr. Benjamin Soares, anthropologist and senior researcher at the African Studies Center in the Netherlands, speak about “rasta Sufis” and Muslim youth culture in Mali.
Soares, who has been studying the Malian people for over twenty years, discussed the ways in which Malian youth have been appropriating Islam in recent years, making fundamental changes to the country’s most prevalent religion.
Soares cited Mali’s regime change of the early nineties-which was initiated by a coup and culminated in the country’s first democratic election-as an impetus for dramatic socioeconomic and political change.
Democratization spurred the expansion of the media, opening new spaces for public debate and religious organization, according to Soares. Political and economic liberalization created a new class of elites and a consumerist culture that wedged a divisive gap between generations, as young people began to pressure their parents to buy “more,” he said.
But despite the rapid changes sweeping the country, Mali still ranked among the poorest countries in the world. Soares said he watched as many young Malian became disillusioned with the “formal politics that they hoped would alleviate poverty,” he said.
A job shortage gave rise to the phenomenon of the “unemployed tea drinker,” as educated and overqualified youth began “killing time” by gathering together to drink Chinese green tea, he said. From this community of tea drinkers came new waves of cultural production, as members turned to rap music and religion in an attempt to “drea[m] of a different world,” Soares said.
For Soares, the return to religion among youth seemed particularly marked and interesting. Owing to the influences of Bob Marley, the Cote d’Ivoire band Alpha Blondy, and the popularization of reggae music, groups of young Malian Muslims began to incorporate elements of rasta culture into their religious tradition.
Many began wearing their hair in dreadlocks or long braids, and were “jokingly, or even mockingly, called ‘Rasta Sufis,'” Soares said. They claimed to be imitating the unkempt hair of Malian Sufis past, and their clothing was “Muslim, traditionally African, or a combination of the two,” he said. Many wore the African kaftan, or traditional drawstring trousers and turbans, prayer beads, and tags featuring laminated pictures of prominent spiritual leaders.
Soares focused a better part of his discussion on the religious leaders that have emerged as a response to the changing nature of Malian Islam. He spent a significant amount of time talking about Cheick Soufi Bilal, an important figure in Mali’s Sufi culture.
Bilal, a self-proclaimed “religious entrepreneur,” published pamphlets claiming he was a “luminous source of divine energy” and the representation of “exemplary piety.” Among Malian youth, he developed quite a following.
In recent years, his religious enterprise has grown exponentially to include a large compound and a fleet of cars. By joining Bilal’s movement, Soares said, a number of former “tea drinkers” are able to find work. Soares said he’s heard rumors that Bilal has a relationship with former president Moussa Traore, and there are rumors that Mali’s first lady is one of his main patrons.
Bilal has not only integrated Rasta style into his Sufi religion, but also elements of sport and music culture into his movement. He is an avid football fan and also has ties to major African pop stars. He’s also adept at using media to advertise his organization, and remains an important religious figure today.
Whether the Islamic resurgence among Malian youth is a product of economic circumstance or a result of the rise of charismatic Sufi leaders, Soares isn’t sure. He does know, however, that it’s an interesting phenomenon to follow, and plans to return to Mali later this year.
The lecture was hosted by the African Studies Research Focus Group and funded by UCSB History and Religious Studies departments and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.