As the sun sank over the Sahara, Mohammed Cisse straightened his pristine white robe and fired up the voters. “We’ll build you good schools, letting your children study instead of becoming delinquents,” he bellowed. On cue, women in brightly colored bou-bous rose up from straw mats to cheer to the beat of a drum.

The same day, sitting near an ancient mosque built of mud, a rival campaigner said the schools had only gotten worse under Mr. Cisse, Timbuktu’s mayor for most of the past five years. The challenger’s pitch drew equally thunderous applause from a throng jamming a sandy square that on other days is traversed by donkeys and camels.

All over Mali last month, the boisterous pursuit of votes unfolded with hardly a hitch. Candidates focused on everyday issues like garbage removal and roads. Their lively campaigns showcased something highly unusual in the Muslim world: a thriving democracy.

Islam and democracy haven’t had a good record together, especially where mixed with deep poverty such as that of this sprawling West African country. While much of the world has moved away from authoritarian rule, the New York think tank Freedom House ranks just two of the globe’s 47 Muslim-majority nations fully “free.” They are Mali, a democracy since 1992, and neighboring Senegal. Mali’s rare success thus stands as both a hopeful sign and a measure of the task the U.S. faces in seeking to seed democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the Muslim world’s religious leaders say Western-style democracy — rule by the people under man-made laws — is incompatible with Islam, which has its own detailed laws and rules of behavior, regarded as God-given and immutable. In addition, dictatorial regimes in the Middle East have long claimed democracy was a luxury the region couldn’t afford because Muslims needed to unite in confrontation with Israel.

Democracy might seem to face particularly long odds in Mali. The former French colony sits astride one of the world’s most violent neighborhoods. To the north is Algeria, wracked by a lethal Islamist insurgency, and to the south the Ivory Coast, rent by ethnic civil war.

Mali — bigger than Texas and California combined, with 12 million people — is a hodgepodge of ethnic groups. Listening to Mr. Cisse campaign were black Songhay farmers in Muslim skullcaps, Arab traders with goatees, Peul cattlemen in conical leather hats, and olive-skinned Tuareg nomads whose full-face turbans left only sunglasses exposed. The diversity reflects Timbuktu’s past as a caravan crossroads where the Sahara meets a bend in the muddy Niger River.

What Mali has going for it, though, is an ancient tradition of getting along, helped immeasurably by recent leaders who embraced the democratic ideal. For a thousand years, before a French conquest in the 1890s, much of the land that’s now Mali was united under a series of multiethnic empires that usually respected religious freedom. This history, glorified in folk songs and epic tales, imbued Malians with a sense of common nationhood that transcends ethnic divisions and isn’t common in either Africa or the Mideast.

The pre-colonial habit of coexistence, Malians say, has spared them the twin traps of Islamic radicalism and tribal strife that derail so many democratic experiments in the developing world. And the common history means that unlike in much of the Muslim world, democracy is seen here as an outgrowth of hallowed local traditions, not an alien innovation.

“We are carrying out a unique, original experiment — building a democracy according to our own values, according to the way we Malians are, committed to solidarity, to consensus and to dialogue,” says Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure. “What we have here is an Islam that is very ancient, tolerant and enlightened. We see nothing in our religion that would prevent us from being democratic…”


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