Fighting against the jihadist occupation of northern Mali

Karima Bennoune writes: Before the recent French intervention in Mali began, 412,000 people had already left their homes in the country’s north, fleeing torture, summary executions, recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women at the hands of fundamentalist militants. Late last year, in Algeria and southern Mali, I interviewed dozens of Malians from the north, including many who had recently fled. Their testimonies confirmed the horrors that radical Islamists, self-proclaimed warriors of God, have inflicted on their communities.

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu. The armed groups also reportedly destroyed many churches in the north, where displaced members of the small Christian minority told me they had previously felt entirely accepted. Such Qaeda-style tactics, and the religious extremism that demands them, are completely alien to the mainstream of Malian Islam, which is known for its tradition of tolerance.

That openness is exactly what the jihadists seek to crush. “The fact that we are building a new country on the base of Shariah is just something the people living here will have to accept,” the Islamist police commissioner in the town of Gao said last August. Until military action began this month, local citizens were on their own in resisting the imposition of Shariah — and they fought back valiantly. A radio journalist was severely beaten by Islamist gunmen after speaking on the radio against amputations. Women marched through the streets of Timbuktu against Islamist diktats on veiling until gunfire ended their protest.

The acting principal of a coed high school in Gao told me his school had been occupied by militants from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. They announced that they had come to protect the premises. Instead, they quickly stole its computers, refrigerators and chairs. “We consider ourselves under occupation,” the principal told me. “We consider ourselves martyrs.” He has risked his life to keep his school open, to continue to educate boys and girls together, though he must put them on opposite sides of the classroom now. “My presence creates hope for my students. I cannot kill this hope,” he told me. [Continue reading…]

Those who see foreign intervention as a universal evil are fond of the expression: this can’t end well. Yet this ideological opposition to intervention — a stance which presupposes that intervention necessarily leads to a negative outcome — also presupposes that there is something inherently benign about non-intervention.

Beneath the reasonable expectation that outsiders are frequently in danger of making a problem worse because they have failed to understand its complexity — a failure all too common in American efforts to shape the world in its own image — there is just as often the attitude: I am not my brother’s keeper. It’s not my problem, nor my responsibility.

The crucial issue, however, is not to intervene or not intervene; it is: who is calling for the intervention? Has there been a plea for help from people in need, or is help being imposed by those who presuppose they know what is good for others?

And this question points to the hubris that lurks so often in the seemingly humble guise of non-intervention. It declares that even when pleas for help are loud and clear, they should politely be ignored because they are coming from people who don’t really understand what is in their own interests.

To Malians, Syrians, and Libyans, the underlying message from anti-interventionists is essentially the same: we feel your anguish but we really can’t help. We’re clumsy. Our governments are led by fake humanitarians who really only want to plunder your resources. And besides, our economies are ailing and we need to focus on our our own nation-building. Maybe the UN and the NGOs can help you out, but we have to take care of ourselves and so do you.

In my pointed criticism of anti-interventionism, I’m not arguing against negotiation. Political conflicts demand political solutions. But those who assume that right now French troops in Mali can only do harm are perhaps more naive than the flag-waving Malians who greeted the troops’ arrival.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting against the jihadist occupation of northern Mali

  1. Mustafa Novikoff

    Writing comfortably from California, Ms. Bennoune is just one more Western voice calling to “exterminate all the brutes,” her Muslim name notwithstanding. So why does War in Context print such war propaganda?

  2. Paul Woodward

    No doubt this piece, along with quite a few others, will not be satisfying to those readers who come here to have their prejudices confirmed. But for those with an open mind there is a particularly useful conceptual reversal here that also appears in the interview with Demba Boundy (who is in Bamako): the fact that Malians view the jihadist presence in northern Mali as an “occupation.”

    To call a heavily-armed foreign fighting force that brutally imposes its rule an “occupation” seems perfectly reasonable. Just because the local population is Muslim and so are the men with guns doesn’t make the jihadists indigenous or their imposition of sharia justifiable.

    You think occupiers must be Israeli or American or from NATO? Think again.

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