Although taking place slightly outside the standard geographic definition of the Middle East, the current political disturbance in Mali engages several of the major themes discussed in recent readings, notably nationalism, sectarianism, and imperialism, and echoes other recent experiences of Western military involvement in the Middle East, and of ethnic warfare in the Sahel.
The polity now known as the Republic of Mali achieved independence from France in 1960; events in 2012 saw its democratic government overturned by a military coup. Since the state’s independence 60 years ago, it has also been the scene of a secular, nationalist independence movement by the Tuareg, the majority ethnic group in much of the country’s Sahara region. The current face of the Tuareg rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, declared Azawad an independent state in 2012. In addition to the government(s) of Mali, the MNLA has also engaged in combat against Ansar al-Dine, a Salafi-aligned Islamist group with the aim of implementing a harsh Salafist interpretation of Shariah in the region. In recent years, Ansar al-Dine has cooperated with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, an international organization with similar goals. The presence and aggression of AQIM precipitated the French intervention; the humanitarian crisis brought about by their assumption of control in much of the north, the potential for northern Mali to serve as an incubator for terrorism, as well as requests for assistance from Mali’s under-equipped military, were seen as adequate grounds for involvement.
Since beginning air strikes less than a month ago, France recently declared that their occupation of the north has succeeded, and the primary military threat mitigated. Revenge killings of suspected militants by civilians continue, and evidence is beginning to emerge that huge numbers of the same have been executed by the Malian armed forces without trial.
The event seems bizarre in that it possesses many of the external characteristics of sectarian violence as described in Gelvin, but the actual antecedents are much less clear. Even though a former imperial power became involved, it seems extremely unlikely that it did so in order to protect an imperialistic economic sphere of influence in the region. The nationalism of the historically oppressed Tuareg is unsurprising, but the fervor of the Salafi militants in the absence of an overt ‘politicization’ of them by a foreign state seems unlike anything we’ve discussed in class so far.