Soldiers in Mali have overthrown that West African nation’s government, claiming that the elected government has incompetently managed efforts to defeat the long-running Tuareg insurgency. Mali may not often be on American policymakers’–let alone the public’s–radar, but it was important for a number of reasons. One of the world’s poorest countries, Mali was consistently not only ranked free by Freedom House, but it was also the world’s freest majority Muslim country—much freer than Turkey, and freer than both Bosnia and Albania.

About a decade ago, I was fortunate to spend some time in Mali, where I got to visit Timbuktu—to see just where my parents had always threatened to send me when I misbehaved. I wrote this piece at the time, lamenting how the squeaky wheels in Sudan and Lebanon got the American grease, but the quiet democrats in Bamako were ignored. Mali was the perfect antidote to the diplomatic tripe that poverty—rather than ideology—caused terrorism. Mali was dirt poor, but aside from very specific and isolated pockets, Saudi-funded imams had made little headway. Still, it was shortsighted for American officials to basically cede Mali to the Libyans and the Saudis to proselytize and indoctrinate.

Let us hope on this tragic day for the Malian people that this coup is quickly reversed, and that decades of letting the Saudis and Libyans play uncontested in the Malian sandbox does not come back to haunt us. If the coup succeeds, it will also provide ammunition for the rubbish put forward by those who argue that Muslims are incapable of being democrats. The world has lost a democracy today and despite the progress of recent years, we cannot afford to watch any country—even Mali—fall backwards.

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