Managing perceptions may prove to be the hardest task for the French and their allies in the war in Mali.
Hoping to galvanise public opinion and to win “the hearts and minds” of as many foreign audiences as possible, French officials are going out of their way to avoid the perception that their military intervention in Mali is a war against Muslims. “What is striking is that the word ‘Islamist’ has been erased from the official lexicon and replaced by the word ‘terrorist’,” said French political communication expert Christian Delporte.
The issue is particularly delicate in France where a recent poll (by Le Monde and the IPSOS polling agency) has revealed that as high as 74 per cent of French public considers Islam an “intolerant religion”. (A view even shared by 65 per cent of people on the left and 68 per cent of people under 35). At the same time, many of France’s interests lie with the Muslim world, not to mention the existence of an important Muslim community inside France itself.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron went further to avoid associating the war with anti-Muslim hostility. He said the struggle in Mali is in fact “against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith.”
And he added: “We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad and resist the ideologues’ attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations. However, Cameron, who also described the new conflict in Africa as a “generational struggle”, was ironically accused of using a narrative reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “global war on terror”.
This effort by France and its allies is hardly surprising, considering that the war in Mali is taking place in a country that is 90 per cent Muslim and that some of the main antagonists of the French army see themselves as “defenders of the Islamic faith”.
Since day one, also, some critics of the war in the Muslim world have been saying that it is hardly a coincidence that, after Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, the target of this new western-led war is once again a Muslim country.
The task of managing perceptions is not likely to be easy, since many in the political arena and in the media, in particular, find it more convenient to talk about “Islamist” strongholds, “Islamist” advances and “Islamist” objectives, in describing developments in the current war. “Islamist” is a loose term that lumps together anybody with a proclaimed-inspiration from Islam, from hardcore Al Qaida jihadists to moderate Islamic activists.
Presenting the war as being simply an “attack on terrorists” may help avoid such connotative fallouts and dispel the suspicion of a “clash of civilisations”, but it can also blur important nuances and other dimensions to the conflict.
The Tawareqs, although a small minority, have, for instance, fought for years for independence and not for the imposition of Taliban-like rule. Today, not all Tawareqs are separatists. The Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), for instance, does not seek independence from Mali anymore.
Although some in French media, such as Television channel BFM, describe Mali’s Tawareqs as “local Arabs”, the Berber-speaking Tawareqs are Muslims but not Arabs. Some of the jihadists in northern Mali are Arabs but so are some of the peaceful merchants and traditional Sufi shaikhs. International human rights groups have even expressed their concern that, in the fog of war, ethnic abuses can be taking place.
The complexity of the situation is not likely to go away. “Simplifications of the ethnic, religious and political dynamics of this crisis will not help to resolve the complex issues that are at its root”, said Susanna Wing, author of Constructing Democracy in Africa.
To maintain a high level of “favourability” at home and abroad, the French are also taking the behaviour of their troops quite seriously. Recently, they quickly admonished a French soldier who, in Niono, central Mali, was photographed with his face covered by a pair of goggles and a grinning skeleton-mask.
The young soldier was probably inspired by a popular character in the record-selling videogame Call of Duty. However, the French military was not amused by the fact that the soldier’s picture made it around the world. It denounced his demeanour as “unacceptable behaviour” and “not representative of the action that brought France to Mali to help”.
Apart from that photograph, there so far have been very few powerful pictures from the war in Mali. Some media organisations have been calling this war “the war without images”. They blame this on the restrictions imposed on television reporters by the military forces on the ground.
The military respond that they want to keep journalists out of harm’s way. However, regardless of its motivations, some analysts see this approach as potentially counter-productive. “The army is taking a big risk in not showing images,” said Carl Meeus of Figaro magazine. “In any case, some images will inevitably circulate and this will create a risk of boomerang because we well know that a war is never clean.”
The reason is that in any war, belligerents will have a tough time maintaining their “good reputation” if hostilities drag on. A prolonged war in Mali, with its collateral damage and bloody television pictures, will render perception management a little bit more difficult. Introducing armed drones in Mali, as some are advocating, will undoubtedly complicate the perception problem even further.
Based on past experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia international public opinion, especially in the Arab-Muslim world, is opposed to the use of armed drones.
A recent Pew poll has shown that while 62 per cent of Americans approve of drone strikes, the majority of the public in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe do not. “The danger of a drone-based response is clear for all to see. The ranks of militants are easily replenished when the fire of the conflict spreads,” warned the Guardian in a recent editorial.
It is too early to tell how the war in Mali will evolve, but in all scenarios, It is very likely that the outcome will be determined not only by military operations, but also by the subplot of vying perceptions in the fog of war.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication, currently an international media analyst.