The creation of a religious affairs ministry in Mali shows the growing influence of Muslims in politics in the secular nation which has lost over half its territory to Islamic extremists, observers said.
"Religion enters government," wrote the private 'Indicateur du Renouveau' newspaper on Wednesday, after a government shake up by transition President Dioncounda Traore to better deal with the nation's mounting crises.
The new portfolio will be led by Yacouba Traore, a member of the country's Islamic High Council (IHC) which has been negotiating with the armed Islamist groups.
According to the newspaper this "confirms the importance of the religious debate and the rise of Islamism in society" marking a "victory for the IHC which has always demanded the creation of this department."
It is not the first political victory for the council, which in 2011 succeeded in getting a controversial new family law revised, cutting out sections which would have given greater freedoms and rights to women.
An initial version adopted by the National Assembly in 2009 had removed phrases that a woman must obey her husband, increased the legal age of marriage and gave greater rights to women in case of divorce or inheritance.
However this sparked angry protests in the nation which is 90 percent Muslim and the law was sent back to parliament for revision.
"It is an open secret. The Religious Affairs Ministry is a request from the ICH," the main Islamic organisation in Mali, said sociologist Ali Samake.
On August 12, about a week before the president unveiled the new unity government, the ICH held a rally for peace in Bamako which attracted up to 50,000 people.
Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, who held onto his position despite calls for his resignation from much of the political class, appeared on the flanks of ICH president Mahmoud Dicko in a sign of his support for the Muslim leaders.
In political circles, some say the controversial Diarra was saved due to his support from the influential religious group.
The ICH has also taken a leading role in negotiating with the extremists who occupied the north of the country in late March in the chaos following a coup d'etat in Bamako in which president Amadou Toure was ousted.
The armed Islamist groups have openly allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and are enforcing strict sharia law.
"We are already an Islamic state and the Taliban of Afghanistan are our model," spokesman Senda Ould Bouamama of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) said in an interview with Swiss and Belgian newspapers published Monday.
On Wednesday they banned all secular music from radio waves in the north, the latest move after recently cutting off the hand of a thief and stoning to death an unmarried couple.
In the fabled city of Timbuktu they smashed ancient Muslim shrines, declaring them "idolatrous" just days after the UNESCO World Heritage site was put on an endangered list.
IHC leader Dicko recently met leaders of Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and is expected to return to the north of the country soon to continue talks.
Ansar Dine leader Iyag Ag Ghali said in July: "We only recognise one channel of negotiations with Mali and that is the channel of our brothers from the IHC."
The Islamic High Council wants a Malian solution to the crisis through dialogue.
While the new government's approach is not yet clear, it said recently that actions by "terrorists and drug traffickers cloaked in a false religious veil lend weight to the inevitable nature of the military option."
Ansar Dine spokesman Boumama also recently told a jihadist website their goal was to "peacefully convince" the country's south to join its ideology and create a united Islamic state.© ANP/AFP