Mali: More on Law-and-Order Islamism

Julius Cavendish’s recent piece for Time on politics and violence in northern Mali is well worth reading. Cavendish relays several eyewitness accounts from refugees who escaped the conflict in the north, where a Tuareg-led rebellion that broke out in January has fragmented into several competing factions. As other writers have done, Cavendish emphasizes the scarcity and unreliability of information coming out of northern Mali, but the accounts he cites offer some insight into the current situation. These accounts reinforce the idea that Islamists are attempting to win support amid chaos by providing law and order.

Particularly important is the notion that the Tuareg- led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA – the “Azawad” in question is the area claimed by certain Tuareg leaders as an independent homeland) has created a political vacuum, a backlash even, by abusing civilians and failing to provide security. The accounts Cavendish mentions accord with the findings of a recent report from Human Rights Watch, which concludes that various actors in northern Mali have committed numerous human rights violations during the rebellion.

HRW’s report could be read as a depiction generalized terror and abuse in the north, but it is worth considering how different groups use violence and what political implications these different uses of violence have. HRW outlines the different goals each major group has:

The separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seeks autonomy for the North, which it calls Azawad. The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic Berber people. Ansar Dine is an Islamist armed group that wants to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law – throughout Mali. A local ethnic Arab militia, based in and around the historic city of Timbuktu, was allied with the Malian government, but on the day Timbuktu fell, it switched sides and has since fractured into at least two groups with unclear military and political objectives.

Different aims, different behaviors:

The vast majority of…abductions [of women and girls] and presumed rapes, witnesses said, were allegedly by armed men speaking the local Tamashek language and driving cars with the Tuareg separatist MNLA flag. Most of the abductions documented by Human Rights Watch took place in neighborhoods which witnesses said had a high concentration of MNLA fighters.

Nearly every witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch observed acts of looting and pillaging by MNLA rebels and, in the immediate aftermath of the army withdrawal in Timbuktu, by Arab militias. [Note the contrast in what follows:] Witnesses said the Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine destroyed several bars and hotels they associated with alcohol consumption and prostitution, and engaged in looting, though on a much lesser scale.

The implication is that the MNLA simply preyed on civilians, while the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din: “defenders of the faith”) is attempting to impose, by force, a religiously-infused notion of law and order and public morality. These are different projects. Cavendish extracts the lesson from one eyewitness account:

As the MNLA set about providing a textbook example of how not to win hearts and minds, [the eyewitness] says, Ansar Eddine tried to rein in the lawlessness, setting up a hotline for inhabitants to report abuses. “The MNLA are afraid of them,” he claims. The militants “are [now] in control. They smash hotels and Christian places, but they don’t hurt people.”

When Islamist groups (I am uncomfortable with the label Islamist, but feel stuck with it) have attempted to build states in the context of rebellions (I am thinking in particular of southern Somalia’s Al Shabab movement), international media outlets have often depicted their violence in sensational terms. We hear that hands are cut off, drunkards flogged, alleged adulteresses stoned, but we do not always hear what effects this violence has. The violence is genuinely horrifying, but sensationalizing it obstructs understanding of its political ramifications. Some civilians seem to experience such violence as part of a broader sense of chaos and tragedy. But others seem to approve the use of religiously-inspired violence in the interest of re-establishing law and order in areas where rebel abuses and the absence of the state have left ordinary people extremely vulnerable. It is in situations such as these that groups like Ansar Dine and Al Shabab can win political support from ordinary people.

12 thoughts on “Mali: More on Law-and-Order Islamism

  1. Alex,

    I’m really glad you raised those points. It always bothers me when we don’t bother to understand the nuances of sub-state actors , which consequently compromises our approach to them. It’s a very dangerous tendency and I hope it can be avoided, because the longer the political turmoil lasts in the south, the more established these law-and-order Islamist groups will get in the north. I hope someone is working on understanding the structure, organization, and motivations of the various groups in northern Mali, because we might need to consider which groups may be palatable and which are actually threats to international security.

    • Thanks Lesley. I get the sense that a fair number of analysts are looking at these groups, but the lack of quality information makes it really hard to get an accurate view, as I’m sure you’re well aware.

  2. Excellent analysis. One recalls the Islamic courts movement in Somalia, US-led intervention and the mess Somalia is today.

    Mali isn’t too far from Nigeria (where I come from and live) and imposing solutions on problems that are barely understood will only lead to other more serious, potentially destabilising problems.

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