Radical Islamists push agenda in Mali

The West African country of Mali continues to be a source of worry, as radical Islamist rebels try to consolidate their hold on the North, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, while instability continues in the capital, Bamako, and the rest of the country.

On Mar. 22, a group of junior army officers took power in a military coup, giving their reason as dissatisfaction with the government of Amadou Toumani Toure, whom they accused of failing to stop a rebellion in the North by members of the Tuareg ethnic group allied with radical Islamic fighters with Al Qaeda connections.

Unfortunately for the military junta and its leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup worsened the situation by disrupting the weak armed forces even more, and in a short time, the Northern rebels had advanced swiftly, capturing key garrison towns and Timbuktu.

Now the Tuareg rebels and their religious allies seem to be at the point of falling out among themselves. The main Tuareg rebel organization, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, wants to create a separate Tuareg state, while the main Islamist rebel organization, Ansar Dine, allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, does not want to break up Mali, but rather, wants to go all the way to Bamako and turn Mali into an Islamic emirate under Sharia law.

Not only are these two goals incompatible, but they clash with the aspirations of major sections of the population in the conquered territory.

First, not all the people in the area are Tuaregs, and not all Tuaregs are in agreement with the separatist agenda. The majority of people in Timbuktu, for example, are not Tuaregs, who are light-skinned and speak a Berber language, but rather are dark-skinned and speak a language of the Songhai group. Further, there are reports of bandit-like actions against people of the conquered area by MNLA fighters, including rapes and robberies, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet in many places, the Tuareg separatists seem to have left things under the control of the Islamists.

The Islamist faction is also dedicated to forms of Muslim practice that are sharply different from those that have developed in Mali. Muslim practice there is strongly influenced by Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that differs from the stark and puritanical Salafism of Al Qaeda. Sufi worship may include music, and the position of women is often better under Sufism; certainly this seems to be the case in Mali. Sufi Islam also makes room for the concept of Islamic “saints,” at whose tombs some people pray. These concepts are considered to be blasphemous by the people who are now taking control of the conquered areas.

The contrast is very much like the conflict during the Christian Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, when the ornate and elaborate practices of the traditional Roman Catholic Church scandalized reformers like John Knox in Scotland and John Calvin in Switzerland, who accused Catholics of idolatry and organized the destruction of saints’ statues and icons.

Rebels have been going around in Timbuktu and elsewhere, suppressing things like beauty parlors and the drinking of alcohol. On May 5, it was reported that rebel fighters had been stopping Malians from visiting the tombs of Sufi saints, telling them that to do so was un-Islamic. There were reports that the tomb of one of the saints was damaged or destroyed.

Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of some of the tombs, but also because of its spectacular mud-walled mosques, and more than anything, the thousands of ancient books from the city’s heyday as a center of learning during the Middle Ages. The rebels have called all the imams of all the mosques to lay down the law to them, and there are fears that there will be iconoclastic destruction of some of the city’s treasures.

Meanwhile, in Bamako, things don’t seem to be going well. Mali’s neighbors, grouped in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), had thought they had worked out a compromise whereby President Toure and Captain Sanogo’s junta would both step down, to be replaced by an interim government under President Dioncounda Traoré                   and Prime Minister Modibo Diarra. This government would prepare for elections at an unspecified date.

ECOWAS also wanted to send troops into Mali to battle the rebels, who are seen as a major threat to neighboring countries. There are Tuaregs in Niger, Libya, Algeria, and Burkina Faso, and if the rebels in Mali succeed in setting up their Tuareg state of “Azawad,” all of these countries will be threatened. A government run by Al Qaeda allies would be a major threat also. There is also the problem that the turmoil in Mali could lead to major NATO intervention.

But Sanogo has been balking on the foreign troops idea, in the process raising doubts about whether he really is going to cede power to the interim government, and on Apr. 30, special presidential guard troops loyal to the deposed president, Toure, rebelled and fought sharp firefights with Sanogo’s men. At the end of the week, it appeared that this counter-coup has been put down.

Though the Mar. 22 coup was almost bloodless, this time, some two dozen people were killed in the fighting.

Photo: Mali, as seen on map.   Wikipedia


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.