Mali, Shari’a, and the Media

Reporting on shari’a law and groups who attempt to impose their version of it often leans toward the sensational. This tendency appears to reflect the views of many Western journalists, and much of their audience, that shari’a is barbaric, violent, and misogynist, and its application trivial and arbitrary. Negative Western views on Islamic law have, to put it mildly, a long history; for just one example, take Max Weber’s notion of “kadijustiz,” which The Max Weber Dictionary defines (p. 136) as “an irrational type of justice focused on the single case.” Kadi/qadi is Arabic for judge.

I mention this tendency in the media not because I want to make an apology for those who impose shari’a but because I believe that news coverage can blur our sense of context and cause us to misread the political relationships between those who apply a version of shari’a and those to whom it is applied. Reading coverage of shari’a in the news – coverage that tends to follow a model established in reports on Afghanistan, and extended to Somalia – one might easily get the impression that shari’a is simply an alternation of cruel acts and ridiculous ones. One moment the Islamists are stoning a woman, the next they are banning soccer. What this kind of coverage misses is how shari’a fits into the systematic attempts at state-building that groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Shabab in Somalia, and Ansar Dine in Mali pursue. (Comparing such groups is fraught with peril, but we can at least establish these commonalities between them: they are all interested in shari’a and state-building, and the media has emphasized the brutality of shari’a when discussing all of them. Indeed the comparison may be most apt when we are talking about the media, rather than about events on the ground.)

With this in mind, recent reports on shari’a in Mali begin to seem contradictory. VOA writes:

Residents of northern Mali say Islamist militant groups currently running parts of the region are trying to win hearts and minds with an odd mix of punishment and charity.

The groups carry out harsh corporal punishment they say the religion requires, while at the same time doling out cash and other gifts.

Note how mixing punishment with charity – or could we say mixing law with social services, which are core functions of any state? – is described as “odd.” Note how corporal punishment is marked as motivated by “religion,” yet “doling out cash and other gifts” is not, even though charity is fundamental to Islam. Whipping a couple for having premarital sex, the article implies, was “shocking.” Rewarding the couple with money and gifts after they married was simply a way of trying to win the poor young man “over to their way of thinking.” Does this reward have no religious significance?

I am not saying that members of Ansar Dine are motivated solely by piety and that political calculation does not shape their thinking; quite the contrary. But is it a stretch to view all of these actions – the punishments and the charity, the whippings and the gifts – as part of an effort to impose a system seen by its architects as internally consistent, politically effective, and religiously proper?

The political opportunism of Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali has been well documented, but my impression is that at least some of Ansar Dine’s leaders and fighters take piety quite seriously. Let’s look at AFP’s article “Wine, Women and Song Tempt Mali’s Islamists.” It describes the Ansar Dine delegation’s reaction to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where they met with regional mediators and with representatives of rival group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, a secular Tuareg-led group fighting for the independence of northern Mali). One could read the article as exposing Ansar Dine’s delegates as country bumpkins fighting to keep their pants on in the big city. But from the article it seems that it was Ansar Dine’s delegates who mentioned the “test” they faced to AFP’s reporter, and not the reporter who caught them in the grip of temptation. Perhaps they brought up the test to emphasize that they were passing it. The delegates scrutinized what they ate, where they prayed, and how their environment affected them; these are men who care about piety, or at least want observers to believe they do.

Back in northern Mali, reporters tell us, people don’t want shari’a. But the reporting is self-contradictory enough that it becomes difficult to tell what the situation is. People flout Ansar Dine’s rulings, we learn. And yet we also learn that people live in fear of “fighters they say carry arms everywhere, from the market to the mosque.” The people are tired and may soon revolt, we hear. But we also hear that “living conditions in Gao have improved somewhat since early April…The hospital was looted in April but is functioning again under Islamist protection.” It would be reasonable to conclude from these various reports that there is real chaos in the north, and deep division among the population. We could also conclude that Ansar Dine enjoys at least some support; surely hospitals, aid, and a form of law have benefited some civilians.

The media narrative about places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Mali has often boiled down to, “Good local Muslims just want peaceful, ‘traditional’ Islam, but the bad outsider Muslims with guns want to go back to the seventh century.” I find narratives like that too simple. Politics is complicated, and understanding it is too, particularly when information about a locality is so limited and confusing.

In previous posts, I have referred to Ansar Dine’s approach in northern Mali as “law-and-order Islamism.” I stand by that. A civilian population terrorized by men with guns may not always distinguish between different groups with different worldviews. Indeed, some of the residents quoted in the linked articles above seem to lump the MNLA and Ansar Dine into the same general category of thugs. But some residents will make a distinction, and Ansar Dine’s approach – which, I will reiterate, at least attempts to be internally consistent – seems to win some support by offering a form of law-and-order, backed by concrete social services. The MNLA, in contrast, has sometimes offered only chaos and suffering. Tellingly, it is the MNLA that has launched a campaign of reconciliation with local populations, not Ansar Dine.

In case there is any doubt about my own views, I think women should be allowed to make their own choices about fashion and sex, that youth should be allowed to watch and play games, that people should have religious freedom. I find the situation in northern Mali upsetting. But if news coverage of shari’a only provokes our indignation and not our reflection, we miss the political context, and we risk our ability to understand the complexity of religious life in a place like northern Mali.

23 thoughts on “Mali, Shari’a, and the Media

    • Oh boy, Chavuka. Have you even read the piece? Why do people have this knee-jerk reaction, that reduces all serious analysis of the political dynamics of fundamentalist Islam to “you sympathize with the stoning of women”?

      • I was reacting to double standards (or the perception of the same). The West tends to bend over backwards to “understand Shari’a”. However there is no such understanding for the other major faith in Africa.

        Laws that reflect the Christian and colonial heritage of many African states are dismissed out of hand as being “homophobic”. There is absolutely no attempt to examine context.

        Major Christian leaders are dismissed out of hand as “homophobic bigots”.

    • I wouldn’t want to live under Chinese, Venezuelan or North Korean law. I also can’t deny that they are accepted as being the laws of those nations.

      • Would you accept North Korean law as being the proper law of Japan in the middle of an invasion of the latter by the former? And dismiss supporters of Japanese culture as having too simple a narrative and failing to understand the benefits of law and order?

        Ansar Dine is an invading army that is imposing Wahhabi religion and Arab culture on a region that has little history of either. They are outsiders doing this with guns and money like any other invading army, and their local support comes from people that they have bought off or otherwise convinced to support their ideology. The people are accepting it because anyone who fails to comply will be painfully and publicly killed as an example to the rest.

        We should look at this no differently than if Mali had been invaded by similarly well-funded, well-armed rednecks from Alabama forcing everybody at gunpoint to watch Nascar and worship Jesus on Sunday, and we should not make excuses for the genocide of a culture. So they are good at imposing their will through violence and forcing everybody to do what they say? All the more reason to oppose them.

      • Tang,

        Excellently put. There is too much wool over people’s eyes as regards Islamic Fundamentalists and Sharia

  1. Pingback: Mali, Shari’a, and the Media « tamoudre

  2. Very thoughtful post. I would argue however that there is no one such monolith as a single “media narrative.” That almost makes it seems as if journalists are in cahoots with one another to push forward or sell a singular agenda. The people I interviewed from Timbuktu and Gao gave me several different perspectives and I did not try to superimpose a preconceived idea formulated before arriving in Mali. Nor did I insist on drawing on analogies from other conflicts. What I did was listen and try to learn from these interviewees. Another thing to keep in mind is that people often had different things to say about Ansar or the MNLA depending on when they last interacted with the fighters so these apparent contradictions may well reflect themselves in media reports still to come. Media reporting is often limited by space constraints and by what editors and gatekeepers feel they new to do to move the news once the journalist has relinquished the original work. Otherwise we are limited to think-tank papers not written for the general public which have the luxury of be able to go into massive amounts of detail and nuance. Don’t know if there is an ideal solution.

    • Thanks for the reply Derek. I do not question journalists’ sincerity and dedication. Your points about the idea of a monolithic media narrative and about the complexity of the editorial process are well taken. That the situation on the ground is itself contradictory definitely seems to be true as well.

      However I would say again that the reporting on Mali feels very familiar to me at times. Is it unfair to say that there are patterns that recur in the media, even if individual journalists do not necessarily pursue their reporting and writing according to a preset narrative?

      I don’t know if there is an ideal solution either.

  3. Excellent write-up, Alex. A similar language of “law and order Islamism” seems to emerge in lots of countries with a history of intermittent democratic rule but generally poor governance. It certainly drove demands from below for some form of sharia in both Indonesia and Nigeria in the early 2000s. I’m also disturbed by much of what’s being done in the name of sharia in northern Mali, but it’s important to understand that Ansar Dine’s sharia policies are far from arbitrary, and that at least some of them will likely attract public support.

      • Given the history of both nations I can’t see sharia having any real impact. Religious law is just as fallible as secular, and as we’ve seen in Iran it doesn’t take long for the religious authorities to start acting just as the secular ones did. A strong civil society would do far more for Indonesia than slapping religious law on does.
        However I’ll admit that for a time people will accept even the harsher side of sharia as long as some kind of security and dispute-settling system is provided.

      • Shari’a in Nigeria might be an interesting academic topic, but it was really a thinly veiled declaration of political independence.

        It might make for exhilarating academic study, but its impact on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships is far from benign. It still exists, tottering on its last legs, riven by a myriad of inconsistencies in its application.

        The damage done persists.

        In the multi-religious, multi-ethnic and rapidly changing society that is Nigeria, certain compromises have to be made for the sake of unity. In 1999, Northern Nigeria had the choice of leaving things the way there were or embarking on a quixotic quest, potentially alienating it from the rest of the nation.

        They chose the latter.

        Watch this space.

  4. Way to charge straight into a provocative topic. Strict Sharia has many downsides but the overall concept is treated like the devil by the general American populace, media and GOP politicians. U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East would greatly benefit from a more open debate.

    Mali’s phenomena is also occurring in southern Yemen, where AQAP brought a measure of stability to towns that the government had little to no control over. AQAP has provided more services in some parts of the country and capitalized on the lack of economic opportunities to expand its influence, paying relatively high wages to recruits. AQAP remains unpopular in the country and Yemen’s new president is an upgrade over Ali Saleh, but the group retains support due to the lasting effects of his corruption and destruction of Yemen’s tribal networks. AQAP can only be rolled up if an organized political structure fills the void, otherwise there will always be a market for its style of governance.

    When people are forced to choose between an unresponsive government, a local actor like an insurgency and no authority at all, the majority often opens a large gray area that feeds non-state actors. Mali is experiencing the pains of this schism.

    • The U.S. (and the Western world in general) has a strong history of keeping religion and religious authorities out of law, something started about five hundred years ago and made stronger over the past two hundred. That, combined with what we’ve seen happen in theocratic nations, has made us very suspicious about anyone suggesting that sharia be implemented, especially if it implies that a subculture in the nation might not consider the secular law to be the most important.

      • Is the suspicion without merit? I am not even a Westerner, and I am suspicious.

      • In my opinion in – at least several – Western European countries the religion has still a strong influence on the law. Think of the family law that has only be modernized in the 1970ies (husband/father not being any more automatically the head of the family, abortion, parents and teachers were not any more allowed to beat the children…) with considerable resistance from the side of the christian catholic church. There are parties/movements in Europa who claim to write into the constitution that Europe is based on the Christian faith. I think that we are not really aware of weight of Christian fundamental values and laws, we consider some of them laic, but they aren’t.

  5. Alex, you’ve made a great point. It may not apply to all journalist but it does apply to the majority of American’s who don’t understand the pull of sharia in places like Mali. Weak governments that don’t give basic services and protections to their citizens are susceptible to the law and order of sharia. Many only see the public whippings and other vial intrusions on individual liberty. I would add, they ignore the strong need for the charity and stability a firm set of laws lend toward improving a community.

    Your point that these extremist offer both punishment and rewards is lost on those that prefer to see these extremist as mad men. The extremist are wrong but it stretches credulity that they could all be mad. Before the US can contain radical Islam they will first have to understand it’s force has as much to do with the power of the gun as the power of a life lived in accordance with rules, albeit many wrong ones, that have rewards here and the hereafter.

  6. Thank you very much for this nice piece of blogims.

    I find it very difficult to make any statement about this complex situation … online resources will not make me understand the situation on ground. But I am really thankful for these thoughts.

    My question would be, why is Sharia Law enforced by an militia in a region that is traditionally known for Animism and moderate Islam? Which kind of law and order are they establishing that the people have missed before? Where was the Malian state before? If they provide basic services they will of course be quickly able to outperform the Malian government.

    Touaregs have rebelled for decades, now extremists take over and destroy their cultural heritage? Its not up to me to have an opinion about that, becaue I am neither Malian nor West-African.

    Does somebody can answer me following question: Did islamic groups try to use political channels to introduce Sharia laws in Northern Mali?

  7. As a journalist here in the Philippines with it’s own Muslim secessionists issues, I very much appreciate the points you have raised here. Personal experience, although very much localized, have me agreeing with you. Your article merits much discussion and, for me, much thought. Among my colleagues there is a real bias against Muslims and this comes out occasionally in our news reports, maybe on a different vein but still similar to the instances you cite here. I find myself fortunate enough to have worked with Muslims as a political activist once and can appreciate the complexities of intra-Muslim dynamics. For an outsider looking in, as many journalists are wont to be, Muslims may seem monolithic and this perception will be spread among readers and perpetuated in time.

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