October 3, 2012

Northern Mali: New Front in a Long War

Arguably the most critical “war of ideas” in the world today is being waged not between civilizations, geopolitical blocs, or even ideologies. Instead, its combatants can be found within a faith community, fighting for the future of a single religion: Islam. In regions from Southeast & Central Asia to North Africa & the Middle East, moderate Muslims struggle daily against extremist groups which seek to appropriate their religious traditions and exploit them in pursuit of political and economic goals. Even though certain fronts in this conflict have understandably dominated the headlines, this internal battle for the soul of Islam is not confined only to Kabul, Gaza, or Benghazi. It continues also in places not covered by most media reports, including the area around a city whose very name is a metaphor for the exotic and unfamiliar: Timbuktu.

Arguably the most critical “war of ideas” in the world today is being waged not between civilizations, geopolitical blocs, or even ideologies. Instead, its combatants can be found within a faith community, fighting for the future of a single religion: Islam. In regions from Southeast & Central Asia to North Africa & the Middle East, moderate Muslims struggle daily against extremist groups which seek to appropriate their religious traditions and exploit them in pursuit of political and economic goals. Even though certain fronts in this conflict have understandably dominated the headlines, this internal battle for the soul of Islam is not confined only to Kabul, Gaza, or Benghazi. It continues also in places not covered by most media reports, including the area around a city whose very name is a metaphor for the exotic and unfamiliar: Timbuktu.

Included in the Republic of Mali after the French withdrawal in 1960, the three desert regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal—populated in part by ethnic Tuaregs with cultural and linguistic ties to the Berbers of North Africa—have been restive ever since, staging four separate rebellions over the ensuing half-century. While marked by bitter struggles over political power and natural resources, the first three remained strictly local in nature. It was not until the fourth rebellion, which began in May 2012, that the conflict took on a religious dimension.

That month, Tuareg groups—taking advantage of a military coup against the Malian government—formally declared independence as the State of Azawad, citing what they saw as decades of discrimination and bad faith on the part of Malian governments. For their part, Malian officials described the Tuaregs as “terrorists,” pointing to the fact that some separatist figures were returnees from the conflict in Libya. Yet, the Tuaregs’ umbrella organization,the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, by its French acronym) continued to pursue a negotiated settlement—at least until their nascent state was hijacked by armed Islamist extremists literally operating under a black flag.

Having long maintained a presence along the drug- and human-trafficking corridors stretching north across the Sahara Desert to the Mediterranean coast and onward to Europe, these armed Islamist extremist groups groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) were ideally placed for their successful sweep that pushed the MNLA out of the region’s cities, where they have remained in power ever since—rebuffing repeated efforts by the Malian army to regain control of the area. From the moment they gained control, the extremists have been working to impose an austere, alien form of fundamentalist Islam on the local population by force.

First, they destroyed countless shrines, tombs, and other sites sacred to local Muslims, but forbidden according to the Salafist interpretation of the Qur’an. Subsequently, they have displayed all of the usual trademark human rights violations made famous by fellow Al-Qaeda “franchises” Al-Shabaab and the Taliban, committing “serious abuses” such as public amputations, floggings, and stonings—all while recruiting child soldiers as young as 12.

Faced with an implacable enemy so uniquely resistant to dialogue, both the MNLA and the Malian government have grown frustrated with the status quo. As MNLA Transitional Council of State member Moussa Ag Assarid declared during a recent visit to ICDS, “the situation is this: we are about to go to war.” For now, both are seeking European and other international support before renewing the military campaign to retake the lost cities; but the window of opportunity is closing fast. European countries must now ask themselves the question: do we have an interest in the Northern Mali conflict?

In humanitarian terms, the significance of a prolonged three-sided military conflict in the world’s fifth-poorest country is clearly beyond question, and itself merits international attention. In security terms, however, Mali’s location matters, as so many of the economic migrants and political refugees from Central and West Africa—to say nothing of drugs and even weapons—already travel through the Sahel. If Mali were to see a period of prolonged instability as a result of civil war, it could trigger its own wave of refugees as well, potentially overwhelming a European processing system already stretched to the breaking point as a result of the conflicts in Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.

Even more strategically significant than a large-scale flow of refugees could be a victory by Islamist extremists in Mali’s three-sided conflict. Such a result would reverse what had once been considered one of the most successful examples of resistance to Islamists’ retrograde political-social philosophy by indigenous, tolerant Islamic traditions. This reversal could energize the extremists’ ideological allies elsewhere, where some Islamists continue to call for the replacement of existing laws and social norms with their version of sharia.

As this is a battle within Islam, it will be won—or lost—by Muslims themselves. Yet this does not mean that Europeans need to sit on the sidelines and anxiously await the outcome. As this is a battle of ideas as well as arms, moral support can be just as valuable as military assistance. In terms of the Northern Mali conflict, Europe and the broader international community should use its moral authority to bring the Malian government and MNLA together at the negotiating table. Cognizant through long experience of the need to balance respect for the principles of territorial integrity and national self-determination, Europeans can help both sides find a mutually-agreeable settlement that will enable them to put their differences aside for the moment—thereby freeing up resources to use against their common enemy.

Although from an outside perspective this internal Muslim conflict can seem to be an endless source of frustration, a sense of despair is unwarranted. As Nick Witney at ECFR recently put it, “there is no need to pre-emptively cede the argument to the extremists.” Many Muslims disagree strongly with how their traditions are being misused in pursuit of the military and political objectives of a single faction. As was recently and emphatically demonstrated in Libya during the recent demonstration that routed the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia out of Benghazi, these Muslims are upset about what is being done in the name of their religion—and are willing to do something about it.

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