While the world looks on, France’s political class has come to an agreement on the principle of military intervention in northern Mali against a coalition of “Islamists,” “jihadists” and extremists. Those critical of the French government for going it alone concede that the decision to take action is “just”. French President Francois Hollande, who appeared lost at the head of a rudderless government, has gained new prestige and refurbished his image as a statesman — and as a military leader dedicated to “destroying the enemy,” to “putting him out of action”. Thus northern Mali seems fated to become the mirror in which France admires the image of its strong and determined president.
First things first, though: The ideology and methods of the Salafists and jihadist armed groups merit only condemnation. Their interpretation of Islam and their exploitation of religion by imposing the most degrading corporal punishment are utterly unacceptable. Once more, the contemporary international conscience of the Muslims must make itself heard loud and clear: Such an interpretation and such an application of Islam is a betrayal, a horror and a disgrace. The first to raise their voices must be the Muslims themselves and the Muslim-majority countries. Politically, intellectually and with all the strength their conscience and their heart can muster — a position that can brook no compromise.
To this principled position must be added a powerful dose of geopolitical analysis — all the while avoiding confusion between an imperative moral stance on the one hand, and a simple-minded binary political position on the other. To oppose the jihadist extremists does not mean accepting French policy in the region. George W. Bush’s “you are with us or with the terrorists” is as fundamentally false as it is perilous, both in terms of substance and consequences. Behind France’s “noble” commitment to the endangered people of Africa, several very explicit questions remain unaddressed. The West in general, and France in particular, had for decades forgotten the people’s suffering under dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before changing their tune and singing the praises of “revolution” and the Arab spring, of liberty regained. In Libya, humanitarian intervention revealed its ugly face beneath a crude disguise or as open affirmation of interest in oil and economic advantage.
Several months later, France has intervened in Mali ostensibly for the good of its people, its only intention being to protect a “friendly” country from the danger of extremists now allied with Tawareq rebels. The accuracy of this version remains to be seen. The total absence of economics and geopolitics from the political and media presentation of the French intervention raises serious doubts. Even less is said about the lengthy history of France’s connections with a succession of Malian governments. Events are unfolding as though France were suddenly expressing its solidarity with grace, generosity and selflessness. However, the raw truth is that behind the recent political upheavals in Mali, France has never stopped meddling, pressuring, removing Malian political or military leaders seen as uncooperative, and creating alliances at the highest levels of government and among the country’s tribal, military and civilian figures, weakened and isolated after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown by a military coup on March 22 last year. Toure paid for his policies towards the northern part of the country and for his preferences in the future distribution of oil exploration permits.
France’s ties — often strained — with the secessionist Azawad National Liberation Movement (Mouvement national de liberation d’Azawad — MNLA) are an open secret, the aim being to split the country into two zones to facilitate future exploration of promising mineral resources. The presence of Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and its alliance with the Tawareq tribes of the north has been for no less than three years — another factor justifying France’s military presence in the region. It finally became official with the recent opening of hostilities.
The French government and the executives of the oil and gas multinationals have attempted to downplay recent discoveries in the Sahel, a region including Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria (there has even been talk of a “Malian mirage”). However, the data is much better known and established than most people are willing to admit. Jean-Francois Arrighi de Casanova, Total’s director for North African operations, was more forthcoming when he described it as “a new Eldorado,” with its vast oil and gas potential. The region possesses no fewer than five promising deposits. The resource potential of the Touadenni basin, on the Mauritanian border, has already been confirmed. To it must be added the Tamesna and Lullemeden basins along the border with Niger, the Nara basin close to Mopti and the Gao Graben. France’s Autorite pour la recherche petroliere (AUREP) has confirmed the potential of Mali’s subterranean resources (primarily oil and gas). Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Niger now find themselves directly involved and, following the fall of Gaddafi, the way is now open for the oil companies of France (with Total in the lead), Italy (ENI) and Algeria (Sipex), which have invested more than an estimated $100 million (Dh367.8 million) in surveying and prospecting despite the prevailing insecurity and arid climate.
The blood, the liberty and the dignity of the friendly people of Mali are certainly all the more worth defending when, at the same time, enormous oil and gas deposits lie hidden beneath its sands. Northern Mali’s mineral riches are far from a mirage; the only mirage is the reality of decolonisation.
How can any of these questions be considered illegitimate?
No one can deny the existence of violent, extremist and radicalised groups that profess a faulty and unacceptable understanding of Islam. They must, to repeat, be condemned. But it must be recognised that these groups have conflicting political strategies and a dismaying tendency to set up shop in precisely those places where mineral resources are a key economic factor. The same was true in Afghanistan (at the heart of a region immensely rich in oil, gas, lithium, etc.) and suddenly — it is difficult to understand exactly how or why — extremist “crazies” have now chosen the Malian sector of the Sahel, one of the world’s most arid and lifeless regions, to apply their inhuman writ. There can be no doubt whatsoever about the existence of extremist groups, but there are legitimate questions about how they reached their current destination. Their areas of operation and their methods may well be encouraged and directed: What was clear under George W. Bush is no less clear in Mali, where “terrorists” can be used to advantage. On my most recent visit to Mali, a retired military man confided his misgivings: “We are under orders to exterminate them, to ‘destroy’ them even if they are disarmed. Take no prisoners! We do everything we can to drive them crazy, to radicalise them.” Not a bad military strategy. More recently, the satirical Parisian daily Le Canard Enchaine revealed that France’s ally Qatar has signed an agreement with Total for exploration in the Sahel while at the same time it provides logistic and financial backing to radical groups such as the rebels “of the MNLA (secular nationalists) and movements such as Ansar Dine, AQMI and MUJAO (Jihad in West Africa)”. Should these allegations prove accurate, would it be a contradiction — or perhaps an encouragement — to the extremists by goading them into action in order to justify French military intervention as practical, necessary and ultimately imperative? A convenient distribution of roles that is as effective as it is cynical.
Today, the world looks on as the latest hostage drama unfolded in Algeria, promising to inflame national feelings in support of further military action. American, British, Norwegian and other European hostages are being held on Algerian soil. Suddenly, more than just France’s interests are at stake. A majority of Malians are delighted, but far from fooled: France the friendly power is, above all, the friend of its interests. There is nothing new about its policy of selective intervention (in Libya and Mali, but not Syria or Palestine). We are told that the bias inherent in France’s African policy has ended; that the era of political and economic colonialism is no more; that a new day of freedom, of national dignity and of democracy has dawned. And we are supposed to swallow this hypocrisy!
The extremists, their actions and their exploitation of religion and culture, must be denounced. However, time has come to face up to our responsibilities. For the African and Arab states that have forgotten the basic precepts of political autonomy and responsibility; for the African and Arab elites, and for all of us, who have proved to be unable to put forth a clear vision of political, economic and cultural independence; for the peoples that allow themselves to be carried away by mass emotion and the chimera of “friendly powers” ... for all of us, politicians, intellectuals and simple citizens concerned above all by dignity and justice in the countries of the global south, we must now assume ultimate responsibility for what is happening in front us. The “destruction” of the northern Malian jihadists is far from a promise of freedom for the people of Mali. Instead, in the long term, it will prove to be a new and more sophisticated form of alienation. And yet, never have the forces of resistance in the countries of the global south had as many opportunities to open new horizons, new pathways towards freedom.
All we see today is euphoria, celebration or silence in the face of France’s “liberating action” and of the “International Community’s” unanimous support for it. It is as though the Middle East and Africa had once more agreed to submit as the West, wounded, dying of its doubts and wracked with economic, political and identity crises, fires its last salvos. Africa’s greatest service to itself, and to the West, is not to bend before the West’s nostalgia for power and its fevered illusions, but to resist with dignity and coherence in the name of the values that the West and France claim to hold dear and yet every day betray by their hypocritical and lying policies in South America, Africa and Asia. Northern Mali is a wake-up call that makes the blood run cold: Behold, a people that mistakes a new form of enslavement and economic suffocation for political liberation; behold, African and Arab politicians and intellectuals who grin and applaud. The hypocrisy and cowardice of the latter is the mirror image of the hypocrisy and manipulations of the former. Nothing new under the colonial sun!
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.