Spotlight on Mali

Did faith-based AIDS ideology help create the current situation?

Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

As I wrote this column, the latest outbreak of civil war in Mali was in its second week. Our State Department ordered family members of embassy employees to leave the country. France said it would up its troop numbers, after their air attacks didn’t halt the Islamist march south. Vicki Huddleston, ambassador to Mali in 2002–2005, urges the U.S. to help the French as their battle intensified in Mali’s north. Huddleston points out that Mali is a key to holding radical Islam at bay in Africa. If things go wrong, Mali, once hailed as the “poster child of democracy” in the Muslim world, might fall to radical Islamic rule.

What isn’t being mentioned is the way our faith-based AIDS policy in Mali may have contributed to this explosion.

Centuries ago, Mali was part of a cultured and wealthy West African empire, whose famed trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao were awash in gold. In the late 1800s, Mali came under colonial control as part of French Sudan—until 1960, when a rebellion established the independent Republic of Mali. However, in that year and again in 1968, the country was taken over by dictatorships. After years of turmoil and famine, popular demand for multi-party democracy finally led to adoption of a new constitution in 1991, and the first democratic election of a President the following year.

Significantly, in a world where rightist Islam is so ubiquitous, Mali opted for a secular government founded on religious tolerance—possibly a lingering tradition from its trading days. The population is ninety percent Muslim. Of the remaining ten percent, nine percent follow indigenous African religions. Only one percent are Christians, who belong to small Catholic and Protestant churches scattered over the country—many of them “planted” in recent years. Mali’s Muslims belong to various brands of Islam, but they’re mostly what Americans call “moderate.” Traditionally they got along with that tiny Christian minority. Malian Muslim women are seldom veiled or compelled to live under the harsh “sharia law” in stricter countries like Iran.

However, HIV was a ticklish subject there, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, where family and sex life is generally kept very private, away from meddling by foreigners. AIDS is not as epidemic in Mali as, for instance, South Africa. Nevertheless, in 2006, because of tolerance by most Muslim citizens, USAID was able to broker the launch of an ambitious project. At a workshop in the capital of Bamako, Malian Muslim leaders and Christian leaders agreed to cooperate on bringing both Koranic and Biblical principles to bear on the country’s HIV infection rate, especially where it affects mothers who became HIV-positive.

Yet Mali is struggling with deep change. As cyclic drought has worsened in recent centuries, many Malians living in the south, along the Niger River, experience growing crop failure, poverty, and lack of education. According to anthropologist Benjamin Soares, underneath the apparent tolerant surface of Mali, lay the potential for reactions against new Western ideas. In the north, that vast desert interior where Tuareg nomads still roam and Mali shares borders with several other countries, Malians watched different radical Islamist forces organizing. They viewed their own government as ineffective and corrupt.

In March 2012, a revolt by Tuareg rebels overwhelmed weak government forces, and captured Timbuktu and Gao. From there, they got the whole north under control. Radical Al Qaeda-type groups joined with the Tuareg to abolish secular government there, replacing it with sharia law. Now the radicals intend to occupy the entire nation of Mali. Two weeks ago, they launched an offensive into the south, towards the capital. In the ensuing panic, refugees fled the north, and the Malian government called for help.

Because of our government’s determination that AIDS policy must be “faith-based” at least in part, the United States now has its toe in a violent conflict between U.S. Christian missionaries and Islamic radicals. How did this happen? Because government financial support of “faith-based” organizations has opened the door to some organizations who are less interested in fighting AIDS than in using this opportunity to extend their influence in Africa.

So far, the blowback against Malian Christian missions has been stark…and predictable. According to reports I’ve seen, radical Muslim attacks have virtually wiped out all the churches planted in north Mali, and killed dozens of Christian church members. Executions and punishments of converts have reportedly happened. In east Mali, radical Islamists attacked and destroyed an entire USAID-financed irrigation project of World Vision.

For many decades now, ultra-fundamentalist missionaries have been toiling quietly to turn Africa into a new frontier for their ideologies. Indeed—as long ago as 1979, British Islamic author A. A. Sulaiman stated in his book Christianity and Mission in Mali that “Christian evangelization programs…specifically target Muslims. Mali, for example,…is said to be a fertile ground for missionaries.”

One example of today’s more Islamophobic NGOs is Samaritan’s Purse, whose president/CEO is Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. The organization runs a program called World Medical Mission. According to SP’s Web site statement, their religion is the only true one on Earth, so they are obviously in Mali for one purpose only: to convert Muslims to their brand of Christianity. Their MO is to soften up Muslims for conversion by doing humanitarian medical work, including AIDS work.

In 2010 alone, Samaritan’s Purse spent over $300 million dollars worldwide, mostly from private contributions. But according to USAID on-line, $159,951 of this amount was taxpayer dollars from USAID and other government grants. Thus American taxpayers are helping this group to pursue their ideological goals in Mali.

Does this NGO respect the religious beliefs of even the moderate Muslims who constitute Mali’s majority? Evidently not. During a televised town-hall, Franklin Graham called Islam “wicked” and “evil.” Clearly, “evil” Muslims included law-abiding moderate U.S. citizens, since Graham went on to add, “They want to build as many mosques and cultural centers as they possibly can so they can convert as many Americans as they can to Islam.” Graham even figures among those fundamentalist figures who accuse President Obama of being a closet Muslim.

On Samaritan’s Purse’s Web site, they tell a typical story of how their AIDS interventions work towards conversion. “Last November, Christians trained by Samaritan’s Purse visited Mary in her home and found her in a very critical condition. There was no food for her in the house, and no milk for the baby. She explained to the group that she was HIV positive. She did not want her baby to be infected with the virus, but didn’t know what to do with her child or her life.…The group however, did not limit themselves to only providing for her physical and social needs. They also introduced her to Jesus.”

Another USAID-funded Christian NGO operating in Mali is Church World Service. There, CWS is supposedly running cash-for-work programs. Meanwhile the organization is in hot water in Afghanistan, where it’s being investigated for unwelcome proselytizing. The organization has received millions from USAID over the years.

All in all, faith-based NGOs have fed heavily at the federal trough. During the Bush era, PEPFAR gave close to $2 billion dollars to 159 FBOs in 2001–2005. Today, the Obama-era total is yet to be seen, but in 2010, $1,450,000 was earmarked for Mali by CDC alone—a team to assist local NGO partners and Mali government research on AIDS-related behavioral studies started in 2009.

So I have some questions. Should U.S. taxpayer dollars support faith-based NGOs that are operating in Muslim-majority countries, and stir up opposition because they are openly intolerant of all Muslim belief?

Mali presents us with a provocative setting to ask this question. As I read USAID documents on the 2006 project, I don’t see any agreement by the Mali government that their people could be proselytized. Yet, in fact, this is what happened.

The Obama administration continues the Bush-era policy of giving a pass to faith-based NGOs. Current policy allows for up to 50 percent of PEPFAR prevention to be faith-based—more than fifty percent must be reported to Congress.

And what about an unthinkable situation where some hard-liner FBO’s American staff might need rescuing by U.S. troops? Do First Amendment rights of far-right NGOs extend to their operations in foreign countries, where their attitudes might put their own people in harm’s way—not to mention staff and converts of more moderate Christian NGOs who might be more interested in public health than proselytizing?

Should the U.S. be monitoring NGO proselytizing more closely?

By the time A&U readers see this column, Mali events will have moved forward. I may return to this subject in future columns.

Further reading:

“Involvement of Religious Leaders in the National Response to HIV/AIDS in Mali: A Pathbreaking Initiative.” USAID,

“Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era,” by Benjamin Soares (African Affairs, December 2005).

Franklin Graham on AIDS and Africa

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved

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