After spending almost three months reporting on what feels like invisible, daily violence, I can’t help but wonder why some of these stories garner so much more attention than others.
When I heard that two bombs had exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, my heart sank.
Please, please don’t be an Arab-American. Please, please don’t be one of us.
Like other true believers, leftwing activists are sometimes willing to sacrifice people to ideological purity. And this is one of those times.
I probably wouldn’t have admitted this 11 years ago as an undergraduate anti-war activist: The French government made the right call in sending troops to Northern Mali. But I wouldn’t have acknowledged it then for myriad reasons, like educational gaps, shortsighted groupthink, leftist naïveté and self-righteous paternalism. And I would have been wrong.
Like other true believers, leftwing activists are sometimes willing to sacrifice people to ideological purity. And this is one of those times.
At socialist website Liberation, Eugene Puryear penned a column with the headline, “Oppose the Neocolonial French Intervention in Mali!” And likeminded magazine Socialist Alternative insists that French involvement will “amplify the chaos.” Both nod to the history of colonialism in the area without much detail or explanation, as if colonial history is an explanation in itself.
Even the moderate left has jumped on the bandwagon. At Democracy Now!, Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies provides a misleading account of the conflict. Her argument rests on three key points, all of which must be addressed: They’re plausible—and dangerous—because there’s a kernel of truth in them.
First, she implies that the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIB) is not a significant player in the region, contesting the dominant narrative in both Western and African media outlets. Sure, she recognizes there are a few extremist elements in the area, but she implies that they’re pretty inconsequential. Here’s what’s true about that assertion: AQIB is not the only group that opposes Mali’s government in Bamako. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
In fact, there are three main opposition groups linked to Islamist extremism: AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJWA. Andrew Lebovich of the New American Foundation provides helpful context in his new series at Jihadica: AQIM, which became an affiliate of al-Qaeda in 2007, is the wealthiest extremist group in the area. Lebovich says the group has accumulated “an estimated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments (more, according to some sources)—money reportedly bolstered by income from cigarette smuggling and taxes from the region’s growing drug trade.” Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the men believed to be leading the rebellion in Northern Mali, has an extensive history with AQIB, and the group has controlled Timbuktu since April, making them a key player in the unfolding conflict.
The other militant groups, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), originated in and around Northern Mali. They assisted AQIB in its April bid for control of Northern Mali and set up what they called the Independent State of Azawad. There, they imposed a draconian version of Sharia law that brought stoning and amputation to Northern Mali. More than 200,000 people were displaced by April. Meanwhile, they began destroying Timbuktu’s ancient relics, targeting the city’s more than 700,000 ancient manuscripts across 60 libraries.
Woods’ second erroneous claim is that the conflict is just an innocent bid for self-determination by the longsuffering people of Northern Mali. The involvement of three militant Islamist groups belies this claim, but again, there is an ounce of truth in it. That’s because the al-Qaeda backed assault on Northern Mali was originally backed by Tuareg separatists in the north who have been fighting oppressive policies from Bamako for decades.
Called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the group turned to al-Qaeda in 2012 for assistance with their independence bid. They started out as the primary resistance force in Mali, but were sidelined by the wealthier Islamist groups.
But things are always more complicated than that, and it’s impossible to suggest that the Islamists and the Tuareg separatists are two completely distinct constituencies. There is more overlap than that. Ansar Dine, for example, is a predominantly Tuareg group. More than the other two Islamist groups, it stresses Tuareg liberation in rhetoric that links self-determination with Islamist nationalism.
The MNLA itself is divided. When Islamist groups established dominance in April, tension between mainstream the MNLA and Islamist groups erupted. In June, the MNLA organized a military assault on the Islamist rebels—for that, the Islamist groups doled out harsh punishment against the Tuareg rebels, alleging Sharia violation.
This may have started with a relatively innocent bid for self-determination by a long-marginalized minority group, but it has since ballooned into something altogether different. Now it’s an unmitigated mess.
This is one of those moments in which two seemingly opposed things are both true: France is self-interested, and it’s also right to intervene. Once in a while self-interest converges with the right thing to do.
France hopes to stamp out the growth of al-Qaeda to prevent it from gaining influence in the region and within its own borders, and it has an economic stake in the future of Mali—namely in the country’s uranium reserves. These are points of fact, but again, they do not negate the case for intervention.
Of course France isn’t motivated by pure compassion in Mali, one of their former colonial holdings. Sometimes true believing interventionists like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter overstate the humanitarian component of missions like this one—and forget that postcolonial context matters. There is a humanitarian crisis in Mali, but pundits like Power and Slaughter are suspiciously reluctant to address anything else. They’re beholden to another dogma: Interventionism in service of the international human rights regime. But their short-sightedness doesn’t mean that interventionism is always wrong.
The left is not wrong to insist that meddling will always carry neocolonial undertones. It’s not that there’s nothing problematic about the intervention. But policymaking requires countries to weigh a range of bad options, and decide which one is least bad. They do this in an international system marked by disparities in power and wealth—and haunted by memories of past violence and oppression, including a colonial system that lasted into the late twentieth century in parts of Africa.
The rise of al-Qaeda in Mali is not only a threat to French and Malian security interests. It’s also a problem for which France is partly to blame. Colonial powers drew Mali’s map—indeed, they drew Africa’s map—with no regard for existing groups such as the Tuareg, who are dispersed throughout Northern and West Africa. The people of Mali divided by cultural and ethnic distinctions that were long exploited by French colonial rulers bent on establishing economic dominance. Their strategy? Fomenting and exacerbating existing political and cultural divisions in the country.
It’s not that Mali’s diverse groups lived in pastoral harmony before colonialism—and indeed, suggesting this would amount to romantic orientalism. But colonialism made the divisions more entrenched. The French pursued this tactic not only in Mali, but throughout their Northern and West African holdings. They also have a long history of propping up repressive dictators in the region.
At Al Jazeera English, historian Mark Levine provides a helpful history of the emergence of radical Islamist groups in Northern Africa and the Sahel. He suggests that the current Islamist groups in Northern Mali were born of postcolonial pushback against repressive governance in Algeria.
That vexed history complicates policy decisions to this day. The French supported Ben Ali against the 2011 democratic uprising that led to his ouster in Tunisia. Then, irrespective of the need for intervention in Libya, the 2012 ouster of Gaddafi sent the former dictator’s cache of weapons across borders to Tuareg and al-Qaeda-linked opposition groups in Northern Mali. Now al-Qaeda is trying to take Bamako.
And that’s just the abridged account of the chaos the French government helped unleash in Northern Mali recently. France arguably owes it to Mali to help right some of the damage it’s done. This mission won’t fix everything. It won’t rectify Mali’s history of Tuareg repression. It won’t serve a democratic uprising in Mali. It won’t convince the government in Bamako to consider democratic reforms. It’s a simple mission, absent the triumphalism of past French engagement on the continent: Stop al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.
Over and over, in every media outlet in the world, the people of Mali have expressed near unanimous support for the French mission. When we insist that they’ve all got it wrong, we treat Malians with the same paternalism we think we’re fighting. We want them to fit into our nice leftist understanding of the world, in which there are clear “good guys” and “bad guys,” and power is a top-down, easily traceable construct.
But there is no post-postcolonial world coming. International actors, like people, learn to figure out what works best in a world that gives us not purity, but troubling possibilities. No one is innocent.
Again, people in Mali almost uniformly support French intervention at this moment. It’s a fraught and deeply disturbing solution, and already there are signs that it’s going to be harder than France realized.
But trust that the people squawking about paternalism are surely among the most egregious offenders right now. Are Malians adults who can make informed decisions about their own country? Or are they the children of colonial imagination? Too many on the left—a left that I have always identified with—have chosen the latter. This is where we part ways. People are more important than dogma in any moral rendering recognizable to me.
Really, who the hell are you?
We hear the above term a lot, and some suspect that it is derives from the Hadith of the Prophet of Islam (Peace Be Upon Him). However, most are confused as to its origins, given that it appears in a broad mixture of Islamic and Christian teachings. For those of you who cannot read the Arabic الدين معاملة, it roughly means “religion is in the treatment of others”.
Faith is one of those standbys in times of intense trauma. It can be a community institution that allows people to come together to grieve, and it can be a destructive and abusive force that minimizes human loss for its own self-aggrandizement.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John 1: 1-5, New Revised Standard Version
At the London Film Festival, three very different, compelling films.
In the third year of the Great Patriotic War a nameless boy and his sick mother make their way back to their home in Ukraine. The train they travel on rumbles like artillery fire, a fellow passenger curses, “We will suffocate in here like a gas chamber.” The boy’s story is just one in a disparate sea of millions as humanity washes back to shore, the Nazi dam ruptured under the weight of Stalingrad, Kursk and the annihilation of Army Group Centre.
Perhaps in light of the anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, it would be wise to remind ourselves that neither those attacks nor these new ones happened in a social or political vacuum.
The developments of this week were truly remarkable: Alleged protests outside the US embassies in Benghazi* and Cairo that culminated in the killings of four US diplomats – and all of it allegedly instigated by an alleged two-hour film called “Innocence of Muslims” that no one in the United States had ever heard of, including its entire cast and crew, created by a man no one had heard of – one “Sam Bacile” – who turned out not to exist at all. Subsequent killings in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere as protests spread throughout the region. The thirteen minutes of footage uploaded to Youtube, clearly a no-budget endeavor said to be funded by $5 million from a strikingly conspiratorial-sounding “100 Jews” – and the fact that no Israelis, let alone Jews, had had any involvement. Ah, yes, and the dubbing of every offensive religious reference, including the substitution of Muhammad for a character the script had called “George.”
Are we certain – or uncertain – in our conviction that these are all isolated incidents? Arrogant or afraid?
So, where will next week’s public shooting(s) happen, America?
Or should I be asking about tomorrow? This afternoon perhaps? What precisely is going on these days?
I spent several hours yesterday looking for a timeline that includes every attack we’ve seen since mid-July. I couldn’t find one. I can’t figure out why. Are we certain – or uncertain – in our conviction that these are all isolated incidents? Arrogant or afraid?
You know you’re in trouble when you start to root for the stake.
My response thus far to the fifth season of True Blood on HBO has been one of overwhelming ennui. The show appears to have long-ago passed its ‘use by’ date, and right now it’s skulking in the back of the refrigerator, waiting for someone to notice and throw it out. Until then, we all need to suffer through the mysterious smell of unknown origins permeating our television sets on Sunday evenings.
To rail against the Internet today in 2012 feels much like protesting the printing press or electricity or modern medicine – pointless and self-defeating.
In New York yesterday, forty thousand Haredim (“ultra Orthodox”) and Hassidic male Jews crammed into Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, in an asifa (rally) against the Internet. It was a striking sight, a sea of austere black clothes, forelocks, beards. Like the Haredi women unable to attend this single-sex gathering, I, of course, watched it on the internet live stream.
At the end of the day, it is simply impossible to argue that this is a struggle between secularism and faith. Rather, it’s a struggle about what kind of faith we North Carolinians want to live.
Next Tuesday, May 8, the citizens of North Carolina will go to the ballot to participate in the state’s 2012 primary elections. But they’ll also have the opportunity to vote for or against a proposed state constitutional amendment that begins, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” Though gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina, proponents suggest that the measure will prevent its future legalization.
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