A Just War in Timbuktu?

How the Salafist uprising in Mali threw our Enlightenment ideals into confusion.

Joel Bleifuss

Salafists joined forces with Tuareg rebels in Mali—but now, some Tuareg separatists are cheering the French Army's victory over Islamist forces. (Magharebia / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Islamists took power in northern Mali in April 2012, after helping Tuareg separatists in their nearly 50-year fight for independence. In June 2012, the Islamists — a coalition of Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoot, Movement for Oneness Jihad in West Africa (all of whom adhere to Salafism, a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam) — ousted their Tuareg partners and instituted Sharia law in the Islamic Republic of Azawad, as they called it.

Is there such a thing as a just war, bellum iustum, these days? Is the French liberation of Mali from the Islamists a just war? And where does such a war end?

Under the rule of the Islamic Right, music and tobacco were banned, Christian churches were ransacked, and centuries-old Sufi shrines were destroyed. One couple was stoned to death for adultery; a number of men had their hands amputated for theft; a young woman had her ear cut off for wearing a short skirt; and a man was publicly whipped for drinking alcohol, according to Human Rights Watch. Young girls were reportedly forced into marriages to, followed quickly by divorces from, multiple Islamist fighters, so that the intercourse between the girl and her husband-of-the-hour would be legal under Sharia law — rather than out-of-wedlock sex punishable by stoning. Faced with such barbarities, hundreds of thousands of Malians fled.

On January 30, the French Armed Forces, at the behest of the Malian government and with the help of Mali’s military, established control of Kidal, the last Islamist redoubt. In the cities of Timbuktu, Goa and Kidal, mostly Muslim crowds, including Tuaregs, cheered the French army, celebrating their release from Salafist rule.

All of which raises thorny questions: Is there such a thing as a just war, bellum iustum, these days? Is the French liberation of Mali from the Islamists a just war? And where does such a war end? What if the Salafis usher in an Arab Winter?

In Egypt’s 2011 and 2012 parliamentary elections, the Islamist Bloc, a coalition of Salafist parties to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 27.8 percent of the vote and now control 127 of 498 seats in parliament. And in early February, Salafi cleric Mahmoud Shaaban went on a Salafi TV station and called for the Egyptian government to put to death secular leaders Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Hamdeen Sabahy, a former presidential candidate.

A few days later, on February 6, Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a left-leaning secularist, was gunned down outside his home in Tunis. Most observers believe his assassin was a Salafi aligned with the ruling Ennahda party.

A Syrian man I know is refusing to support the insurgency, not out of love for Bashar al-Assad, but because he would prefer his daughter grow up in a secular dictatorship in which women are relatively free than under a Salafist theocracy where bikinis are banned.

It comes down to this: Does the ascendency of the Salafis present a direct threat to the Enlightenment ideals that have guided human progress for the past 300 years? If so, what would be an Enlightened response to Salafism?

Perhaps it would start with an understanding that the appeal of Islamic extremism has its roots not in Islam, but in the cultural alienation from Enlightenment ideals, which promise personal liberty but, through the free-market economic system, have instead delivered economic penury.

In the case of the war in Mali, the Enlightened response would be for the Malian government to recognize, as the French do, that the Tuareg separatists have legitimate grievances and a just claim to be granted some form of self-rule. Such an acknowledgement might go a long way to convincing young Tuaregs that a better future lies in a tolerant, multi-ethnic democracy than in a religious theocracy.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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