By Nervana Mahmoud
The history of Mali is heartbreaking to read. The land that had once been a prosperous empire and one of Africa’s most stable democracies has fallen victim to locusts, hunger, and rebellion.
The year 2012 was a turning point in the history of this unfortunate nation; a military coup in March 2012 has led to the fall of the nation’s democratically elected government at the hands of a group of disgruntled junior soldiers. This event ultimately destroyed the military’s command-and-control structure and created a void of power that was filled by rebel groups.
Several rebel groups in Mali have a long, complex history. The recent crisis is mainly triggered by radical, Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, the Al-Qaeda organization in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM, and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
In July 2012, this coalition succeeded in controlling all major towns in the north. Their absurd, cynical interpretation of Sharia led to amputations, flogging of women, and other abhorrent acts. These groups’ total disregard for Islamic heritage has motivated them to embark on a systematic campaign to destroy many of Mali’s Islamic heritage sites (specifically mausoleums).
Mali is a victim of the toxic mix of weak state, well-funded militant groups, neglect from moderate Muslims, and Western countries’ attempts to advance their own interests.
There are reports that rebel groups have a rich supply of weapons and cash, thanks to the downfall of Gaddafi in Libya and the millions of dollars they have collected as ransom for European hostages. Another alarming event raises questions about Qatar’s link to those groups; Qatar already has a network of funding projects, which include madrassas, religious schools, and charities, which date back to the 1980s and 1990s in Mali. In addition, those radicals are also armed with Fatwas from many Salafi clerics who sanction a puritan version of Islam and label Mausoleums as un-Islamic.
Radicalism would cease to spread if the forces of moderation fought it. The mainstream Muslims have shown minimum interest in Timbuktu and its heritage; apart from some empty verbal condemnation, no steps have been taken to discredit the radicals. Prominent scholars in the Arab world who would shudder in disgust if a mosque was destroyed in a non-Muslim country have turned a blind eye to the violence in Mali. Timbuktu and other places of heritage were in desperate need for a fatwa from Moderate Islamic institutions to forbid its destruction; none was issued.
Even the hundreds of thousands of innocent, displaced refugees were given insufficient attention among the Arabic formal and social media (having received less coverage than the crisis of the Rohingyas Muslims in Burma, for example). Many non-Islamist leftists, socialists, and liberals, despite their loathing for the radicals, have never paid enough attention to the fight against the spread of radical ideology in Mali − not even starting a campaign on social media to raise awareness about Timbuktu or creating a hashtag on Twitter.
The silence in the Muslim world was also coupled with the initial reluctance from the Western world to intervene. Western nations were initially willing to pay ransoms to kidnappers rather than join the muddy conflict. No wonder the Islamists rebels gradually gained strength and felt confident enough to march south toward the Capital Bamako. The move toward the city of Mopti, a crucial trading post in the Saharan desert, has finally triggered the recent French military mission. The southern march by the rebels also softens the opposition to intervention from Mali’s neighbors, mainly Algeria.
The French campaign has finally raised awareness among the many living in the Arab world about the conflict in Mali. Some are rightly concerned about the impact of the military operations on civilians; others opt to use the convenient narrative of “crusaders versus Muslims,” or “Imperialists versus Africans.”
The apple-and-orange comparison of Iraq and Syria also starts to creep in, mainly based on sketchy, misinformed assessments of the situation. On the other hand, Salafis, who are currently important players in many post-Arab wakening countries like Egypt and Tunisia, seem to be siding with the rebels, forcing their governments to take a cautious or even negative position against the French mission.
These narratives, in my opinion, will not help Mali; on the contrary, they could send the wrong message to the radicals that we, Arabs, would rather see innocents Malians killed and tortured by thugs than see the Western world involved in conflict. It also raises questions about the Arab Salafis’ commitment to democracy and non-violent means. The Arab stance is in stark contrast to Turkey’s more rational position; the Islamist AKP government in Turkey has formally announced that it backs the military operation against the rebels.
It is still unclear how the situation will evolve; the French campaign would not be easy, and the hostage siege in Algeria is just one example of the challenges ahead. Nonetheless, the Arabic public must understand that the conflict in Mali has implications for the national security of many Arabic countries (including Egypt), which illustrates the importance of involvement among Arabic states to help Mali.
Military intervention alone will not fix the problem; the complex reality needs a multiple approach. There are many prospects for successful Arab input, from negotiating a political solution and reconciliation to the implementation of a long-term strategy of spreading a more tolerant Islam and discrediting the radicals in the West of Africa. Mali faces a conflict that Arabs should not ignore or leave to the West to handle alone.
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1