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.

Mali: Clashes between the MNLA and Ansar Dine

On May 26, the two strongest rebel groups in northern Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the idea of an independent state in the area) and Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din: “Defenders of the Faith”), agreed to an alliance. Their merger was supposed to represent a compromise – the MNLA agreed to impose some version of shari’a law, as Ansar Dine wished, while Ansar Dine endorsed the MNLA’s vision of an independent Azawad. The merger quickly began falling apart, though. The last two weeks have seen stories proclaiming that the pact was dead, or that the two sides were still talking in efforts to salvage the agreement. Whether and how to implement shari’a is a major sticking point. IRIN and France24 have published detailed analyses of the MNLA-Ansar Dine relationship.

Earlier this week, tensions increased when protests occurred in Kidal, one the north’s three provincial capitals:

Ansar Dine members reportedly violently dispersed a demonstration by around 50 women and children in the city of Kidal as they rallied against the Islamists, a local resident said.

“Around 50 women and children marched today from the stadium to the main Kidal market against the Islamists,” said Abubacar Seydou Diarra, a teacher whose description of the events was confirmed by other residents.

“Some of them chanted in the local language … ‘We don’t want strangers here,’ ‘We don’t want Islamists here.’ Men in three pick-ups that had the Ansar Dine flag intervened and beat the demonstrators,” he said.

The city is the hometown of Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly and has become a stronghold for the group since falling under its control in late March.

Ansar Dine appears to have taken the protests as provocation by the MNLA, and the two sides clashed last night, AFP reports, in Kidal:

The clash involving automatic weapons near the remote regional capital Kidal was the first between the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine.

Both groups are made up of Tuareg tribesmen from different various clans and the fighting has raised fears of widening chaos in the vast northern swathe of the country.


An Ansar Dine fighter, Mohamed Ag Mamoud, said by satellite phone late Thursday that the clash had broken out because “all week, the MNLA was manipulating civilians in Kidal to demonstrate” against Ansar Dine, which is believed to be backed by Al Qaeda’s north African branch.

“They encouraged women and children to demonstrate against us. Now we will show them our strength,” Mamoud said.

“We have been attacked, we will respond,” said Moussa Salam of the MNLA, for his part, asserting that the Tuareg rebels “even attacked the home of Iyad Ag Ghaly,” the head of Ansar Dine and a Tuareg born in Kidal.

It is hard for me to tell whether either side scored a clear victory. AFP says, however, “Calm had returned by dawn Friday, an official said, but he noted that several MNLA flags had been removed from around the city.”

AFP and a Malian journalist it quotes partly frame the two groups’ conflict as “tribal.” One of my weaknesses as an analyst is that I tend to minimize the importance of “tribal” affiliations. On the other hand, I am wary of the supposed explanatory power of “tribes,” which sometimes turn out to be less clearly defined entities than outsiders suppose. To me, the conflict between the MNLA and Ansar Dine seems like it centers on serious political disagreements over how northern Mali should be run. And from the reporting, it appears that the efforts to salvage their merger are failing, which means more conflict may be on the way.

Mauritania and Northern Mali

The rebellion continues in northern Mali. The Tuareg-led separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu in northern Mali) and the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Arabic: Ansar al Din, “Defenders of the Faith”) recently announced an alliance (Aray al Mostenir says it has the text of the agreement here, in Arabic). In addition to the nervousness caused by the trajectory of the rebellion as a whole, Ansar Dine’s apparent alliance with Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is worrying Mali’s neighbors.

Mauritania seems ready to react militarily. Magharebia reports that Mauritanian troops are drilling near the border with Mali:

Mauritania held extensive military exercises last week outside the city of Bassiknou, located along the Malian border.

The operations were part of efforts to step up border surveillance and prevent the infiltration of terrorists and smugglers, Mauritania’s Aray al-Mostenir reported May 22nd, noting that the country’s security forces were placed on high alert.

The website stated that a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.

The Mauritanian army conducted reconnaissance sorties over the Wagadou Forest and the area where most of the past armed confrontations with al-Qaeda and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa took place.

I could not locate the original article from Aray al Mostenir, but you can view a map of Bassiknou here.

Mauritania is undoubtedly concerned about defending its own territory, where AQIM has periodically conducted raids, kidnappings, and bombings since 2005. But it is possible that Mauritania is also considering taking the offensive. In 2010 and 2011, long before the rebellion began, Mauritanian forces entered Mali several times hunting AQIM: in September 2010 (Arabic), in the Timbuktu region; in June 2011, when they reportedly raided an AQIM base in the Wagadou Forest (more here); and in October 2011, when they launched an air raid on the Wagadou Forest. If readers are aware of other Mauritanian operations in Mali, please let us know in the comments. In any case, it is worth paying attention to this show of force from the Mauritanian army.

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.