Events are moving quickly in Mali, but it’s clear that the French are finding the battle against the Islamist insurgents to be tough going. Their combination of air power and a few hundred pairs of “boots on the ground”, along with the efforts of the Malian army, has inflicted casualties but has not entirely halted the Islamist advance into southern Mali, let alone reversed it. The French are sending in more troops, as are some of the neighbouring African countries, and other Western governments are helping with intelligence and logistics. The Guardian has a long but seemingly worthwhile and well-informed summary of some of the latest developments in Mali itself, and one of the points that emerges clearly is that the French intervention is very welcome at least among the people of southern Mali. Although they are predominantly Muslims, their brand of Islam is traditionally rather relaxed, and they have an uneasy relationship with the Tuareg people who live in northern Mali and dominate at least one of the major insurgent groups (Ansar Dine).
Canada, so far, has agreed to lend France the use of one “heavy-lift” C-17 aircraft for transport purposes, for one week. This isn’t just a token contribution, since France must have a genuine need to move troops and equipment into Mali. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to suspect that we could do a little more. Roméo Dallaire and Kyle Matthews, writing in the National Post, suggest that Canada should send in the troops. After all, we have high-quality soldiers who can speak French, which happens to be Mali’s official language. As one would expect from Dallaire (I don’t know anything about Matthews), there’s a fair streak of humanitarian idealism in their argument that we should “support the Malian government, instead of abandoning its citizens to extensive retributions and abuses”. They even trot out the poor old sacred cow of the Responsibility to Protect, as if that could still be taken seriously following events in Syria and any number of other places.
However, the outrages they mention – “floggings of unmarried couples, amputation of limbs of suspected thieves, rape and the imprisonment of unveiled women” – are real enough, by all the accounts I’ve read, and they do make the more tough-minded point that the insurgents in Mali will “expand their ability to strike at the West” if not dealt with. They also mention, quite rightly, that Western powers bear some intrinsic responsibility for the situation. The rebellion in northern Mali was sparked by heavily-armed Tuareg fighters who had been working for Gaddafi in Libya, and returned to their own country to seek independence from the southern government after a Western military operation in support of Libyan rebels put paid to Gaddafi and his regime.
A piece in Italy’s La Stampa, quoted by the BBC, is considerably more clear-eyed and unsentimental about the interests at stake in Mali:
There’s a war to be won only an hour’s flight from the Mediterranean and Europe, an extremist thorn stuck in the far-extending fields of oil, gas, phosphate, and uranium, along the new drug routes, and along the path of illegal migrants who come up from the heart of Africa. A war on the borders of the Arab Spring revolutions, which has become Islamic… Such is the game to be played out today on the Mali game board. And the West, distracted and wary, so far lacks the best cards to sit at the table.
Whether you, gentle reader, are more readily swayed by the idea of humanitarian intervention or the idea of helping France and our other European allies defend their interests in northwest Africa, the two imperatives converge in that they both point to the urgency of action against Ansar Dine and the other insurgent groups. Furthermore, I don’t think even Dallaire and Matthews really engage with the sheer fanatical savagery of the Islamists of northern Mali. In my previous post on the subject I mentioned their penchant for smashing historic tombs and inflicting gruesome punishments on people for breaching the Islamists’ ultra-strict version of Sharia law, but it also bears pointing out that the Islamists have banned music in the territory they control. This is a very big deal in Mali, which is thought to have been a main wellspring (via the transatlantic slave trade, of course) of American blues music and all that followed from it.
Pinning down the problems with the ontological argument or musing about how atheism might interact with various controversial issues in Canadian society is a perfectly good way to spend an evening, but in Mali there are excellent reasons to go out and fight particularly fanatical religious zealots whose destructiveness is a scourge in their own country and a growing threat to northern Africa, Europe and possibly the wider world. Personally, I think atheists have every reason to encourage Canada to saddle up and get in there, shoulder to shoulder with France. With luck, our economy might even benefit from those fields of phosphate and uranium and such.
Anyway, here’s a little sample of what the Islamists are trying to stamp out in Mali. Tinariwen are a Tuareg band whose music apparently has a very traditional core, despite the presence of some foreign influences. If Wikipedia is to be believed, one of the members of the band was “arrested” by the Islamist bastards just this month.