Tag Archives: Radical Islam

Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Filed under Human Rights, International Focus, Military & Might, War & Peace

Clashing Dreams in the Middle East

As revolution rushes through the Middle East, radical Islam and democratic secularism will clash and confront one another. (Source: beforeitsnews.com)

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his dream lives on. His was a dream of violence, bloodshed, and sectarianism, one in which a new Islamist caliphate could take power, and his repressive ideology would flourish.

Bin Laden also envisioned a Middle East that would be sympathetic to his ideas and ideals. And while most people are repulsed by his beliefs, there are a frightening number of people who hold the same bloodthirsty views as him. Many of these are already involved in al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other distinct terrorist entities. But this mindset can be found all throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is an idea that advocates the violent enforcement of one’s own beliefs, and is not only a grave danger to lives, but an offensive and woefully misguided interpretation of the otherwise peaceful and fairly welcoming religion of Islam.

Yet the Arab Spring, as it is now known, is seriously calling into question the efficacy and popularity of bin Laden’s violent Islamist vision for the Middle East. Unlike the religious revolution al Qaeda dreams of someday bringing about, the Arab Spring which brought down both Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was almost exclusively secular, and motivated by secular desires and aspirations. It’s democracy that the Arab people seem bent on achieving, not an Islamic state or caliphate.

So there seem to be two conflicting viewpoints in the Middle East right now. On the one hand, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and all who share their twisted views see a future in which their own beliefs about religion and society are paramount. On the other hand, a powerful new youth movement is swelling in the Middle East, a movement that, despite al Qaeda’s fondest wishes, is a secular one.

The stage seems set for yet more tension in the Middle East. Even as a new dream of freedom and democracy builds momentum in places that previously suffered under terribly repressive states, a different kind of repression, this time of a religious variety, is still in the arena. As these two dreams of the future, one of religious nationalism and the other of secular democracy, face off over the coming years, the people of the Middle East will have a choice. They must make it wisely.

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Filed under International Focus, Religion & Reason, Revolutions & Revolts, War & Peace

Seeking the Spiritual: Perception From Belief

A member of the English Defence League, a group whose harmful beliefs have definitely given rise to dangerous perceptions, in their case, of Islam. (Photo credit: Gavin Lynn. Source: Creative Commons)

One of my favorite overused cliches is “seeing the world through tinted lenses.” While this line is used far too often, it’s still a good one.

We all see the world in different ways, and I’ve come to realize more and more that these different views and visions about the world drastically alter the way we see our environments and everything (and every person) around us. In other words, our perceptions of things stem directly from our beliefs about those things.

While this is a very natural thing, it can also be a very harmful one. If we have harmful beliefs, we’ll begin to develop harmful perceptions to match those beliefs! For example, if I hold the false belief that all fruit is poisonous, I won’t eat any fruit, and that will take a toll on my health. I see this kind of progression from dangerous belief to dangerous perception (and ultimately to dangerous action) all the time, in the news and in the world around me.

A great example of this is the story of Terry Jones and his church in Florida. Last summer, Jones’ tiny, 60-member church made clear its intention to publicly burn a copy of the Qur’an. There was a huge uproar over this (and rightly so) from nearly all sectors, including the American military (who feared this had the potential to cause a spike in terrorist attacks), and eventually Jones gave up the notion. But this last March, Jones decided to go through with his initial book-burning plans, staging a mock trial of the Qur’an on his website on March 20th, on what he called “International Judge the Koran Day.” The “trial” ended with a burning of the holy book.

Naturally, this outraged Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, and violent protests have taken place in Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving at least a dozen dead. This is a perfect example of a dangerous belief turning into a dangerous perception and then into a dangerous action. And, as we saw here, it was only one more step toward yet more dangerous and violent actions, all of this due to a crazy belief.

But it’s not as if we can (or should) carefully regulate all of the thoughts and beliefs of all people in a country, much less in the entire world. So what can we hope to do? We can watch our own beliefs, and be carefully aware of what kind of perceptions stem from those beliefs. I’m of course not saying that my readers are likely to start burning holy books of any religion! What I am saying is that it’s much easier to let our beliefs become our perceptions than most people want to acknowledge. And if we allow our negative thoughts and beliefs about other people affect us too deeply, then our negative perceptions of those people will grow stronger.

It can be very difficult to keep our beliefs from affecting our perceptions, because it’s only natural to do so! But what’s so important for us to remember is to keep our negative beliefs from giving us negative thoughts and attitudes toward others, especially when those attitudes become negative actions. We can only start getting rid of harmful beliefs when we don’t let them become harmful perceptions.

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Filed under People & Society, Seeking the Spiritual

Islamophobia and Ignorance

Peter King, the man behind the recent "Muslim hearings." (Source: peteking.house.gov)

Earlier this month, Representative Peter King of New York held a hearing that was called to “investigate the radicalization of Muslims in the United States.” This sparked an uproar among religious and secular groups across the US, who were infuriated by what seems to be obvious bigotry.

King, who is pictured here, of course denies any such allegations. The man is adamant that this is not discrimination, and many people agree with him.

I have to admit that it’s an unavoidable (and unfortunate) fact that there tend to be more Islamist extremists than there are extremists in other major religions. (I pray that no one takes this in an offensive way!) But King’s approach to this problem of possibly-encroaching extremism is not just appallingly bigoted, but the wrong way to solve the issue.

First, the bigoted part. While it’s statistically true that there tend to be more Muslim extremists (at least here in the US) than those of other religions, it’s patently false that violent extremism is exclusive to any one religion. (Just take a look at Timothy McVeigh or Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.) By claiming that Islamist extremism is the only real threat to America from religious groups (which he hasn’t necessarily explicitly said, but seems to be pretty heavily implied in his singular focus on Muslims), King is isolating and discriminating against a typically peaceful and law-abiding group of people simply based on their religion.

Now, to me it seems obvious that this is religious discrimination. King is essentially leveling his gavel against an entire group of people based on the actions of a very few individuals. This is a vast and offensive generalization of Islam and of Muslims. It’s understandable that Peter King would want to hold a hearing on religious violence in general. But by focusing exclusively on Muslims, King is not only ignoring the possibility of religious violence from other sectors, but unfairly focusing on a religion whose adherents are almost totally peaceful.

The implications here are more than simple issues of religious fairness though. Radical Islamist groups’ resentment toward the United States is often based largely on the perceived bigotry of Americans toward Muslims, and sadly there’s often a lot of truth to accusations of religious animosity against Muslims among Americans. Besides this, many non-extremist Muslims in the US feel victimized by some Americans’ anti-Islamic sentiments. Peter King’s recent actions do nothing but add fuel to the fires of disenfranchisement among American Muslims, and make Islam seem like a religion that has no place in America. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, are also making moves that alienate their Muslim inhabitants.

This alienation is not just wrong, but a violation of basic American and human rights. If the US claims to be a country based on “liberty and justice for all,” then its public servants, especially its federal level ones, cannot single out groups of people, whether or not those groups have a greater tendency toward extremism. Peter King, and any other politician who wants to look into the radicalization of any religious group, must do it in a way that is not exclusively focused on one group. The longer our country, and really any country (or person), continues to foster this kind of prejudice and religious ignorance, the greater our problems with extremism will become.

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Filed under Politics & Power, Religion & Reason