The people of Mali are calling out to the international community for help

UNTIL recent years, Mali had persistently shrugged off the possibility that a small number of extremists could take over the country. Now, after the militants have captured most of the northern region and destroyed several sites of cultural heritage including shrines, mosques and Unesco-designated world heritage sites, the people of Mali are calling out to the international community for help. Most tragic was the reported burning of some manuscripts allegedly by a librarian on the militants' arrival in the city of Timbuktu. The value of these treasures is beyond estimation; if instances of such reported destruction continue, the collective loss could be larger than the decimation of the House of Wisdom by the Ilkhanate forces during the siege of Baghdad in 1258.

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Financial Condition

Binu ShrineIf accounts of the burning of the manuscripts are true, they indicate that the advent of the militants in Mali seems to have been a catalyst for the 'transformed faith' of some among the custodians of Mali's house of wisdom. Many of those working in financial institutions, especially the banking sector, and foreign-funded NGOs are also reported to have fallen prey to the same sentiment.

The moderates of the West African country, which was considered one of the region's most stable democracies, were living in their comfort zones. Civil society was satisfied that their 'mujahideen' had fought to free Libya from a dictatorship. Not one was able to foresee that they could be the next target of the same 'mujahideen'.

This is not merely Mali's story; the same has happened in Somalia, Kenya, Yemen and Pakistan (Swat). Not only do Islamist militants the world over adopt a similar religious and political discourse, their actions too are alike. They are inherently expansionist. Instead of focusing on governance and humanitarian issues, they want to expand their ideological, political and territorial boundaries. Their cause remains attractive as long as they continue fighting.


Their description of a state is very simple and comprises three pillars: hakim (ruler), who acts on behalf of the council of the pious; qazi, who normally settles disputes; and kotwal, or law enforcer, who maintains law and order at any cost. The ordinary Muslim often believes in this simple narrative of the state.

Once triggered and encouraged to assert itself, this narrative becomes almost irreversible. This has happened in Afghanistan, the Pakistani tribal areas and Somalia. The people pay the price for putting their faith in the simplistic narrative of the state, and the narrative is further strengthened by some segments of society adopting the Islamists' strict regulations on nearly every aspect of human behaviour and social life. Hence what is happening in northern Mali is nothing unique.

The parallels in contemporary Islamist militant movement's show that they tend to begin from the tribal areas. Though they have urban and Western educated members in their fold, their ideas of jihad are drawn from the mountains of Afghanistan that is still a vital source of inspiration, or the conflict zones located on that state's borders. Apart from strategic, operational and territorial advantages, these areas provide them space for ideological and political growth, which may not be easy in urban or even rural areas, where socio-cultural and political behaviour is fixed, and even the clergy follows a set pattern and in most cases is reluctant to change the discourse.

The mountain redoubts of Abyan province in Yemen, north Sinai in Egypt, the preferred hideouts of Al Shabab in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, and mountainous terrains on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have many similarities. These areas lack not only development and state control; the local population here has less exposure to the outside world.

The control over these peripheries, however, is not the ultimate target of the Islamist militants. They keep their eye on mainland regions, which they feel is essential for achieving their political objectives. They maintain contact with inhabitants of urban areas to seek not only moral support but also logistics and financial resources. They wait until an appropriate time, when a sufficient support and network base has been developed, to target and hit cities. The Merca coastline and Mogadishu in Somalia, Abyan in Yemen, and now Timbuktu in Mali are recent examples.

Mali Mosque
Mali Mosque

This might not be deemed a unique pattern but for the militants it is a source of strength both at the moral and operational level. The urban population and its information organs have less access to these areas and any retaliation by the state does not get the level of acceptance among the masses given the more immediate threats they face in their daily lives, particularly crimes and lawlessness in society.

Apart from the absence of urban security sensitivities in the tribal areas, economic deprivation, political and ideological ambiguities also play a crucial role in the development of simplistic narratives. These factors are exploited by Islamist radicals to the maximum. It is difficult for states to take recourse to similarly sensational and skewed rhetoric, and Islamist militants can easily outclass states on the propaganda front.

A remedy to these problems can be found in pluralism, freedom of expression and cognitive responses. The state has to provide an atmosphere for the cognitive growth of society and encourage rationalist and moderate segments of society to come out of their comfort zones and start asserting themselves without fear.

Otherwise the patterns, dynamics, strategies, tactics and ideological and political frameworks of the Islamist militancy will continue to appeal to the simplest narrative espoused by ordinary Muslims, and whenever and wherever Islamists strike, the custodians of ancient heritage may be there to support them.

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