Pau Summit: A Problematic NYT Line on Anti-French Sentiment in the Sahel

French President Emmanuel Macron recently invited – or summoned – his Sahelian counterparts to a security-focused summit in Pau. A lot has already been written about the summit and I leave you to the commentary by Crisis Group (French) and others.

One line jumped out at me from the New York Timescoverage, though, and I think it’s important to unpack. Discussing the context for the summit, which includes not just insecurity in the Sahel but also anti-French sentiment among some segments of Sahelian populations, the NYT wrote the following:

Protesters, many inspired by Islamist preachers, have taken to the streets of the region’s cities to demand an end to the French military presence.

I think this is largely wrong, in terms of its diagnosis of who is “inspiring” the protests. For example, here is a report from RFI (French) on the January 10 protest in Bamako, Mali against France’s Operation Barkhane, the Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission; the report notes that the protest was organized by “associations and political parties,” and that some religious leaders actually asked their supporters not to attend. In my own fieldwork in Mali and Burkina Faso, I’ve heard anti-French sentiments from a wide swath of interviewees, few of whom I would classify as Islamists. Various Sahelian elites are now on the record expressing skepticism about Barkhane’s efficacy, its legitimacy among civilians in conflict zones, and even about France’s motives.

Clerics such as Mali’s Mahmoud Dicko do have the juice to turn out large numbers of protesters on certain social and political issues, but to ascribe the bulk of the anti-French sentiment to “Islamist preachers” is, again, largely wrong.

More cynically, I think that this line from the NYT is actually doing a lot of subtle and to my mind very problematic work:

  1. The highly loaded word “Islamist” will convey to some readers that these unnamed preachers are mere reactionaries who oppose the French presence out of pre-existing anti-Western bias and not for thought-out objections rooted in immediate political events and trends. For my own part, I would hesitate to describe even Dicko as an “Islamist”; there is no equivalent in Mali, for example, to the Muslim Brotherhood.
  2. The term “Islamist” will also convey to some readers the idea that these are jihadist-esque figures; in journalism, Islamism and jihadism are often used synonymously (see how often Boko Haram, for example, is described as “Islamist” by various outlets). The trope of “hardline preachers” as a gateway drug into jihadism is so widespread that it will be easy for many readers to read that into the NYT’s analysis. There is a long history of commentators suggesting that Dicko, in particular, is a kind of crypto-jihadist. Take this line of reasoning far enough, and you get the implication that these anti-French protests are only coming from a segment of the population that implicitly favors the jihadists. In this imagery, the “Islamist-inspired protesters” become a foil to the image of sober, secular Sahelian politicians grappling with the crisis with the support of their benevolent French allies.
  3. The word “inspired” implies that the protesters are sort of unthinking drones, streaming out of mosques after being fired up by impassioned sermons. Agency is shifted from the protesters to the “preachers,” conveying an image even of a kind of anarchy.
  4. The end result is something implicitly pro-France, I would say. In short, I read the line as the author saying “France is trying to kill these bad guys, but the fanatics in the mosques are trying to stop them.” It’s a way of delegitimizing opposition to the French presence.

Again, the reporting out of the Sahel and my own impressions would not support any of the conclusions implied by the NYT. Opposition to France appears rooted not in “Islamism” but in frustration with the proliferation of insecurity amid the French presence; many Sahelians, asking why France has not stopped the violence, come to the conclusion that France is part of the problem. Only in a few highly specific circumstances have I heard interviewees and interlocutors frame the question in explicitly religious terms – and the widely reported welcome that Sahelians gave to French forces in early 2013 should belie the idea that the current opposition reflects religious identities rather than political perspectives.

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