In Mali, WhatsApp is the weapon of choice for both Al Qaeda-aligned jihadists and peaceful Muslims in their battle for the hearts and minds of the nation.
For centuries, Mali’s nomadic Fulani herders have periodically erupted into violence, fighting against both injustice and what they perceived as violations of the teachings of the Koran.
In the modern era, violent religious fundamentalists are exploiting these ancient ethnic tensions to stir up violence.
And social media is enabling their message to spread rapidly.
Mali has 150 cell phone accounts for every 100 people, and WhatsApp groups proliferate.
Radical messages of hate and narrow interpretations of Islamic scripture are able to spread like wildfire — and propaganda images instantly shared to thousands of people further inflame tensions.
Now, while government militias battle Islamist groups, moderate voices are also beginning to fight back — on the phone.
They use WhatsApp to debate the religious radicals and dispute their interpretations of the Koran.
Exploiting ethnic intolerance
Some critics also say that scapegoating Fulani nomads for jihadism is unfair.
Expert Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim says that violent jihadism has crept into central Mali by exploiting ancient resentments herders have against settled farmers.
Yet Fulani who have left the nomadic life behind and live on farms or in urban settings “have not followed the jihadists, and have themselves been victims” of violence, he told Agence France-Presse. The Islamist militias are mostly nomads ”with pent-up resentment against the state and the elites.”
He argues that what started as a mostly Arab revolt in the northern desert regions — among groups that have been historically antagonistic to the Malian state — was intentionally spread southward through the recruitment of resentful herders in the region.
The same spread of intolerance has happened in Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger.
Both of those nations have been historically tolerant, but are now wracked by jihadism violence inspired by the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.
In one region in Mali where back-and-forth violence between the Fulani and Dogon people have taken hundreds of lives in the last year, a merchant and Islamic moderate, Ousmane Bocoum, recently founded the Association of Preachers for the Preservation of Unity and Social Peace.
The group’s goals are to support moderate Koranic schools, and to defuse tensions by encouraging villages to set aside land for marginalized people to farm.
Bocoum also works independently, using his Whatsapp account to reach out to radicals, “bring them back to reason” and “explain what the Koran really says.”
He told Agence France-Presse that every person in his contact list is also in “at least a dozen different Whatsapp groups, people forward the messages and usually I have a reaction within half an hour.”