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Mali… New Evidence of Our Affliction | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Malian Tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets of Gao on February 3. Source: 2013SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The countries surrounding the Sahara have caught fire with the arrival of fundamentalist groups and trafficking gangs. Since ancient times, the Tuaregs, Arabs, and other tribes have taken to this vast desert landscape, with its scorching heat, arresting chill, and formidable obstacles. Hence the Tuareg-Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni depicts this world in his romantic and enticing descriptions throughout his many novels, especially in my personal favourite, “Gold Dust.” The northern and southern edges of the Sahara have transformed into a chaotic hotbed of fundamentalist activity, including some groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. These lands were already experiencing by cultural and ethnic tensions before the arrival of these groups, and its people struggled to eke out a living. For countless ages Saharan Africa has been a refuge for transitory peoples coming from the north and the south, but now it is viewed by international jihadists as a new base in which they may build and grow because they flock to chaotic and vulnerable places.

As for the authors and fundamentalist preachers leading the media campaign which portrays Mali as a new Jerusalem, they are recklessly and irresponsibility adding to the litany of errors that stretches back decades.

The people of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Burkina Faso, and other Saharan countries are not in need of bold jihadists, well-drilled in making IEDs and wielding AK-47s. What they need is development, security, and reliable food supplies, and the chance to lead their lives in safety.

France and other countries, especially in the West, are not in the mood to intervene militarily after the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq. However the threat of terrorism from Africa looms ever larger following recent events, including the jihadist occupation of the Sahara, and the repeated taking of European and Japanese hostages. Moreover, large expatriate communities from Saharan countries reside in Europe. Some of the individuals in these communities empathise with or actively participate in these armed fundamentalist groups. These reasons and others drove the French and European forces to intervene, with the endorsement of some Arab countries, or at least with their tacit approval.

Jihadists intend the Great Sahara to become the western-most and third major theatre for global jihadist groups, adding to the Afghani-Pakistani mountains in the East and Yemen in the Near East.

The media campaigns undertaken by some fundamentalist preachers and authors are not being taken seriously in political circles. Their rhetoric is no different than that which led Arab youth to the death fields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Mali and its province of Azawad now echo with jihadist sermons and propaganda, having been turned into the new magnet for the militantly pious. Young men from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and even Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, and the Gulf will leave for this country in the desert seeking to perform jihad. Some will die and some will go on to become career warriors, trying to recreate their experience with jihad in this country or that. Thus the wheel of death and deception will continue turning, and there is no one with the courage to break this vicious circle.

The root problem is not Mali, the French intervention, the Liberation Front of Azawad, the Tuaregs, or the Arabs, as their issues can be resolved with negotiations and the passage of time. The root problem lies in the hunger of our culture’s troubled individuals for jihad and righteous combat.

This is the flaw of our culture which our youth are taught to embrace. Despite the disaster of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent losses suffered by the Muslim world, no one learned from these mistakes. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was supposed to mark the end of puritanical rhetoric and the return of self-respect to the Arab and Muslim peoples. But this turned out to be merely the wishful thinking of charlatans amongst the journalists and pundits in the Arab world who two years ago applauded and cheered the Arab Spring, but six months after the fact suddenly changed their stance, warning against being swept up in the emotions of revolution.

Truth is a harsh thing. It is our fear of criticising the media and educational institutions and their hypocrisy that makes us fall into the abyss time after time.

After Mali there will be another crisis, with new jihadists. Despite their appearances which suggest tranquillity and a love of life, many young people amongst us long for jihad and combat.

The great Sheik Mohammed Abduh, who passed away in 1905, argued that the problem has always lain in education and social reform, not in politics. Sheik Abduh renounced politics after his return from exile in 1889, in agreement with the conditions laid by the British in exchange for his return. He devoted himself to education and social and religious reform. With time, Sheik Mohammed Abduh built a great legacy, while those who delved into politics grasped for fleeting moments of influence.

This problem is deep-rooted and self-perpetuating. The solution is not an expensive public relations campaign, like the one undertaken by a group of American Muslim activists, “To redefine the word ‘jihad,’ which has been distorted by Islamist militants and groups hostile to Islam.” The American news channel CNN quoted Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as saying that the word ‘jihad’ means “Resistance for a noble goal.” He added that the campaign will run ads on 25 city buses in Chicago and will later expand to buses in San Francisco. The same person, Nihad Awad, has been running the same campaigns, aimed at the same audience since the Sept. 11 attacks, and even before then. The problem lies not in public relations and the existence of some ‘deviants’ in the Muslim-Arab community, as they like to describe them. The problem is in the “belt” which envelops the jihadists, for these militant groups are products of the hard core of the cultural, educational, and social layers which surround them.

This line of argument angers many, and those who endorse it are accused of many things, not least among them of collaborating with the enemy. However, these insults do not change the facts. Once again, the problem is not Mali, Afghanistan, or Yemen. As the wise say, the problem is rooted “…in the minds, not in parliament.” Men of knowledge, insight, and wisdom have tried to ignite a lantern to lead us, but they were unable to do so and were forced to carry their flame with them to the hereafter; men like Sheik Mohammed Abdo, who departed broken hearted, who the Nile Poet Hafez Ibrahim elegised when he wrote: The world of his era and of Islam wept The lantern in the darkness, the dispeller of doubt