French President François Hollande recently visited Mali, basking in his military’s success in driving Ansar Dine and other Islamist militants out of the northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Apparently there was relatively little fighting, as the militants sensibly decided that going toe-to-toe with the Foreign Legion while simultaneously being pounded by French air power and trying to keep control of largely hostile urban populations was not exactly a winning strategy.
The people of Timbuktu, at least, seemed prepared to welcome Hollande with open arms. This city on the southern fringe of the Sahara has a distinguished centuries-old heritage of scholarship and culture, on which the Islamists had been trampling with an iron heel. In a final outrage they set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a storehouse of priceless ancient manuscripts, before retreating. Hundreds of the manuscripts were apparently destroyed, but hundreds of thousands had been safely hidden by the families who had looked after them for centuries. Several of these documents are available for viewing in an online exhibition: most are works of Islamic theology or jurisprudence (the Islamists apparently wanted to destroy a decent slice of the heritage of their own damn religion) but the exhibition also includes other interesting tidbits such as medical and astronomical texts, a document of manumission for a slave woman, and even a copy of an elementary math primer that was “used extensively by students in Timbuktu and North Africa”. To call the Islamists vandals would be an insult to Genseric and Gunthamund.
It’s encouraging that most of these documents were preserved, but the Islamists left plenty of destruction and misery behind them. Some of the grimmest stories are emerging from the city of Gao, which was under the control of a group called the Movement for Jihad and Unity. In one of the videos accompanying this report, the intrepid Lindsey Hilsum from Britain’s Channel 4 strolls around Gao, talking (mostly in French, though it’s all dubbed into English) to people who endured beatings and amputations. It’s well worth watching, at least for those who don’t mind the sight of a stump or two. Hilsum writes:
A large airless room in the back of the compound became the Sharia court. Here they and other prisoners were brought to sit in front of two or three Islamic judges who they call marabouts. They said that the judges were mainly Pakistanis and some Tunisians and the whole proceedings were overseen by the Moroccan jihadi in charge of the town, known as Abdel Karim. As the judges passed sentence, a crowd of jihadi supporters behind them watched. Some of the women were flogged right there in the court house. A black patch in front marks the place where cigarettes were ground into the sand and smokers whipped. A few yards away is the stadium where the residents of Gao once watched basketball and were now forced to come to watch amputations.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve learnt is that those condemned to these harsh punishments were all black Malians – Songhai, Peul, Bamba, and Bella, traditionally the slaves of the Tuareg. The jihadis were a mixture of Malian Arabs and Tuaregs as well as many foreign jihadis.
This underlines the way religious conflicts can become entangled with racial ones (the Tuaregs are a Berber people not closely related to “black” Africans), and also illustrates just how surprisingly international the Islamist offensive in northern Mali must have been. Moroccan jihadists in northwest Africa are one thing, but Pakistani Sharia judges? There really does appear to be a movement of militant Islamists who see the world as one vast war zone and are prepared to fight, and try to impose harsh forms of Sharia law, wherever they think their version of the Muslim religion can be advanced.
Another surprise is the extent to which they’ve been prepared to turn to decidedly un-Islamic activites, such as drug smuggling, in order to finance their activities. They apparently haven’t been confining themselves to merely smuggling drugs, either. A retired Malian soldier, who was courageous, intelligent and effective in passing information to the French as they worked to push the Islamists out of the city of Dialaby, also noted that at least some of the militants had a pretty serious cocaine habit – which in my view is fair enough, in and of itself. The staggering part is the hypocrisy.
So far, the French have been romping to victory in northern Mali, but the current state of things only represents the end of the beginning. The Islamist militias have been forced out of the cities, but not destroyed, and fighting them in the wilderness will not be easy. The Tuaregs of Mali are very like the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, a tough tribal people with a long and bellicose history. Quite apart from the Islamists, there is a major secular nationalist Tuareg group called the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad that may be willing enough to work with the French but is hostile to the Malian army. This is understandable, given that the army and allied militias appear to be indulging in some fairly brutal reprisals as they ride north on the coattails of the French military.
France and other Western countries are making the usual post-colonial noises about development and elections, but it’s unlikely to be that easy. I expect that we atheists are about to be reminded that politics, racial animosity and conflicting practical interests can be just (or at least nearly) as effective as religion in fomenting human brutality.