By Kazi Anwarul Masud
France has finally intervened in Mali and French forces have removed the Islamists from the areas they had occupied previously. Both the Malians and the ousted government of Dioncounda Traore have welcomed the French troops and rejoiced over the defeat of the Islamists.
The happiness of the Malians is being interpreted as their dislike over the draconian rule of the al-Qaida affiliated Islamists who during the short spell of their occupancy of the country had resorted to cutting off hands, stoning to death and other harsh measures for “crimes”committed by the people. Additionally the Malians are known to be moderate Muslims not wedded to the “purist”’s stricter version of Islam.
French intervention has the support of the US and the international community not so much as a humanitarian intervention but as another chapter of the global (barring a few exceptions) war on terror. Even though any defeat of the al-Qaida calls for celebration by the international community questions have been raised whether French intervention and the reception given to the French troops as liberators not only by the Malians but “Surprisingly enough, Nigeria and with it most of Africa also seem to have ignored the neo-colonial gloss, welcoming and partnering with French forces. They are far more worried about the Islamist threat to regional peace and security than about a re-ignition of French colonial ambition” (Justice in Conflict-January 23 2013) do not carry the flavor of paternalism towards former colonies.
Glen Greenwald of the Guardian quotes Bradford University Professor Paul Roger’s apprehension that the bombing of Mali will be portrayed by the Islamists in their campaign for converts to the cause as another example of Christian assault on Islam. Glenwood further informs us that as French war planes bomb Mali, there is one simple statistic that provides the key context: this West African nation of 15 million people is the eighth country in which western powers -over the last four years alone – have bombed and killed Muslims – after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines (that does not count the numerous lethal tyrannies propped up by the West in that region). It is doubtful though that such a campaign will cut any ice even with the Muslims living at the fringe of society.
But then again while French intervention may have broad acquiescence the participation in the conflict by the Americans and the British may remind the followers of Ayman al Zwahiri of NATO intervention In Afghanistan and in some ways reflect the Vietnam syndrome, stoutly refuted by President Obama, as the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan with the distinct possibility of return of the Taliban.
Some may claim the French intervention has been an assault on the sovereignty of Mali. But such a claim can be countered by the fact that the coup d’état in Mali that deposed the elected President was effected by foreign forces who had returned from Libya after Gaddafi’s fall heavily armed battle hardened Islamist fighters who easily defeated the Malian army. Besides Al-Qaeda in Magreb (AQIM), writes Bruce Riedel, found a partner in a local jihadist group in Mali, Ansar al Dine, and together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, before turning on a Tuareg independence movement, the predominant ethnic group in the north and initially a partner.
AQIM and Ansar al Dine controlled a vast Saharan stronghold the size of Texas. Together, they began destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as Al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in Bamiyan Valley before the 9/11 attacks. Jihadists from across Africa and as far as Pakistan flocked to Mali for training, money and weapons.
Ansar al Dine is led by a former Tuareg rebel, named Iyad ag Ghaly, who was a diplomat for Mali in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis expelled him for contacts with extremists in the Kingdom. Evidently the West, particularly after 9/11, is not going to take any chances with a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda growing its roots in any country from which it can launch a terrorist campaign.
Malian episode brings to the fore a conflict between sovereignty and responsibility of the state towards its citizens. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities; the international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility; if the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions.
Military intervention is considered the last resort. A state also has the responsibility to prevent a situation from growing into becoming one of mass killing.
The killing fields of Cambodia under Pol Pot became such a country in which hundreds of thousands of people died at the hands of their fellow countrymen leading to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia. Another example was Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, where in 1971 three million people were butchered by the Pakistan army and its local collaborators and thousands of women were raped as instruments of subjugation of the Bengali population who wanted to be independent of the yoke of Pakistani rule. Since then the massacres of Srebrenica, Rwanda, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda caused the urgent necessity to institute laws to prevent and failing which to protect people from genocide and crimes against humanity.
Finally the UN Summit of 1985 resolved that each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The summit accepted that responsibility and to in accordance with it. The adoption of the resolutions was not without opposition from developing countries many of whom thought the resolve of the world community could be turned as a tool of neocolonialism. Yet confronted with extremism, fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity the developing countries had little choice but to agree to the resolve of meeting dire needs of the people in distress.
The problem faced by the world in the post-cold war period was the appearance of non-state actors capable of causing harm to the innocent people. This was felt most acutely over the terrorist attacks on 9/11 when the US woke up to the realization that a small number of people totally committed to a cause, however weird it may be, could cause enormous damage. The international community, the US in particular, resolved that never again non-state actors would be allowed to establish their sanctuary from where they could plan and launch their heinous activities.
The question however remains whether the resolve of the West supported in large measure by the developing countries passes the test of legality. In the case of Afghanistan UNSC’s approval was secured. In the case of Iraq invasion was launched on false premises of Saddam Hussein being ready to attack the West with weapons of mass destruction and that he had connection with al-Qaeda. Besides Bush-Blair duo did not wait for the UNSC’s approval and demolished Saddam’s dictatorship. The result is now a chaotic Shia majority rule that reportedly has close links with Iran now the US’primary concern due to possible nuclear ambition of Iran and her threats to international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.
The Sunni majority nations in the Gulf are worried over the ascendency of Iran and her policies dictated more by sectarian considerations like helping the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The ongoing tragedy in Syria where the Saudis are helping the rebels along with the West also has sectarian tenor along with R2P the civilians from Basar al Assad’s murderous campaign against his own people. Despite the good intensions the West’s involvement in the Arab countries did have unwelcome results. It has been pointed out by Guardian’s Glen Greenwald and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt that the Libyan adventure pushed battle hardened Islamists into Mali; that the military coup which destabilized the North was born out of US training, funding and equipment; and that the strategic effects of this intervention will only feed the perception that the West is waging a war on Islam. Which, of course, will only make it ‘necessary’to intervene in further hot-spots in future. Others raise the neo-colonial overtones of the intervention as complicating any ‘just’ outcome.
France sending troops into Africa, regardless of whether this ends swiftly, the paternalism inherent in French actions raises uncomfortable truths about how the dynamics of colonialism survive in the policy arena today. Yet could French intervention have been avoided? Susana Wing (Making sense of Mali-Foreign Affairs) does not think so. She writes: France has important strategic and economic interests in the region. (France’s nuclear power plants feed off the uranium mines in nearby Niger.)
But the idea that these factors drove France’s intervention is incorrect. In reality, the Malian army could not withstand the advances of Tuareg separatists last March and had no chance of holding off an offensive by the jihadists. Particularly after the fall of Konna, the Malian government was in real need of help. The troops that ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) promised to send were simply too slow to materialize, so France stepped in. Besides although over 90 percent of Malians and a vast majority of Tuareg practice Islam and refuse to be governed by sharia law. Wahhabism has been on the rise, but the population has long practiced a more moderate form of Islam.
It would be safe to assume that majority of Muslims worldwide do not support extremist interpretation of Islam and do not pose a security threat to the Western society. If extremists are being used by state apparatus like in the Indian sub-continent the real reason is political and several armed conflicts between India and Pakistan was due to Pakistan’s psychotic fear of attack from India despite both countries having nuclear weapons.
So if the conclusion reached is that Muslims barring the wayward ones do not pose any threat then the question arises as to why intellectuals like Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and William Caldwell receive such adulation in the West?
There are saner elements like Professor Bruce Lawrence (Duke University) who reviewing Caldwell’s book Reflections on Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West wrote:“This is a full-throttle polemic, a mean-spirited book meant to raise alarms, stoke fears, and tame a danger at once unseen and misunderstood yet pernicious and widespread. The danger is Islam, the villains are Muslim immigrants, the terrain is the West, and the outcome is certain defeat for European culture—unless the tide of Muslim immigration, which threatens to become a tsunami, can be stemmed. For those who thought that Samuel Huntington was an alarmist, Christopher Caldwell makes him look like a benign, minor prophet. The latter appears to be saying: “It’s not about the clash of civilizations, dummy, it’s about the near-term victory of the enemy stranger over the helpless native. It’s not a clash abroad, its surrender: a total, irreversible defeat at home.”
But there is no denying the fact that the Muslims in particular the Muslim Diaspora in the West are having a difficult time. Various polls show that Western societies have a negative view of Islam and the people in those countries would prefer not to have a Muslim as a neighbor. This so despite the fact that second and third generation children of immigrants had almost never seen the motherland of their ancestors and were born and brought up in the West and to a large extent have adopted both the language and the culture of the countries they live in. They are therefore hurt and angry at being discriminated in employment and other areas and are hurt if asked to go back to their land of“origin” by extremists and racists in the West.
Even historian Niall Ferguson admits: In fact, the Muslim world is as divided as ever, and not merely along the traditional fissure between Sunnis and Shiites. It is also split between those Muslims seeking a peaceful modus Vivendi with the West (an impulse embodied in the Turkish government’s desire to join the EU) and those drawn to the revolutionary Islamic Bolshevism of renegades like( now dead) al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Opinion polls from Morocco to Pakistan suggest high levels of anti-American sentiment, but not unanimity.
In Europe, only a minority expresses overt sympathy for terrorist organizations; most young Muslims in England clearly prefer assimilation to jihad. We are a long way from a bipolar clash of civilizations, much less the rise of a new caliphate that might pose a geopolitical threat to the United States and its allies. In short, each of the potential hegemons of the 21st century—the United States, Europe, and China—seems to contain within it the seeds of decline; and Islam remains a diffuse force in world politics, lacking the resources of a superpower. Yet people like Christopher Caldwell questions the very necessity of allowing large number of Muslims to come to Europe to help build the war devastated economies and asserts that in most countries there was no desperate need for extra workers in the 1950s – in Britain’s case, Ireland still provided a reserve army of labor. One of the most startling figures, he cites, is that the number of foreign residents in Germany rose from 3 million to 7.5 million between 1971 and 2000 but the number of employed foreigners stayed the same at 2 million.
Caldwell ignores the fact that the Europeans tired of the devastation wrought by the First and the Second World Wars and the Holocaust found liberalism attractive and found nothing wrong with the immigrationism policy adopted by then European governments and more so as the immigrants worked hard and contributed to the resurrection of European economies. In return the hosts arranged their living quarters at the fringe of cities or in ghettoes because they believed the newcomers would “retain the habits and cultures of southern villages, clans, marketplaces, and mosques”.
The social and economic exclusion of the Muslim immigrants was not liked by the second and third generation off springs who claimed all the benefits of citizenship and on being denied resorted to occasional violence to vent their frustration. Al-Qaeda did try and sometimes succeeded in recruiting odd Muslim youths to do their biddings. But as Charles Johnson, General Counsel of the US Defense Department told the Oxford Union in November last year that the core of al Qaeda had been degraded, disorganized and on the run. Osama bin Laden was dead. Many other leaders and terrorist operatives of al Qaeda were dead or captured; those left in al Qaeda’s core struggled to communicate, issue orders, and recruit. But, he warned , there was still danger and much remained to be done as degradation had left al Qaeda more decentralized, and most terrorist activity was now being conducted by local franchises, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (based in Yemen) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (operating in north and west Africa). So, therefore, in places like Yemen, and in partnership with that government, the US is taking the fight directly to AQAP, and continually disrupting its plans to conduct terrorist attacks
But the events in Mali had disquieting effects on Mali’s neighbors like Algeria that opposed NATO’s role in Libya, blaming it for starting the Mali mess. But the Algerians did allow French fighter jets to overfly Algerian territory to bomb AQIM targets in Mali. In conclusion one may say that terrorism by al-Qaeda and Taliban will continue to remain a part of our life throughout the 21st century that has to be thwarted at every step. But for the continuance of peace and resultant economic development inter-religious conflicts have to be eliminated. For any segment of global society to claim that it has nothing to learn from other segments reflects closed mind and is against the basic tenets of post-modernism. As the world has entered the age of globalization though its fruits are not evenly distributed the world has to accept multiculturalism in its widest definition as essential prerequisite for peace and development.
( The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh)
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.