PARIS – Mali is a landlocked West African country of 15 million people, covering 1,240,000 square kilometers (478,800 square miles), three-quarters of it desert. In the fourteenth century, the powerful Mali Empire included parts of modern-day Senegal, Guinea, and Niger. Defeated and divided, it became a French colony in the nineteenth century, regaining independence in 1960.
Mali’s population is diverse: desert nomads, notably Tuaregs, in the north, and a majority of sedentary black populations in the south. Many languages are spoken, but Islam, to which almost 95% of the population adheres, is a unifying factor. Agriculture is the main economic activity, notably in the vast internal delta of the Niger River, home to many tribes, including the Dogon, a people remarkable for their sculpture and architecture.
Long a military dictatorship, Mali became an African democratic success story from 1991 to 2012, before a coup crippled its rudimentary public institutions. In the north, Tuaregs traveling to Mauritania, Algeria and Niger, were particularly weakened by persistent drought and the collapse of the caravan economy. Many have turned to weapons, slave, or gold trafficking; some are demanding independence.
In the wake of the ferocious religious war that tore Algeria apart in the 1990’s, a great number of Muslim fundamentalist Arabs fled south to the vast Sahara that covers part of Mali. Then, in 2011, Western-backed regime change in Libya toppled Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi and drove more fundamentalists to flee into the desert – but not before they had gotten their hands on a significant part of Qaddafi’s heavy weaponry, as well as many vehicles.
These fundamentalists, becoming bandits of sorts, came to terms with the nomadic traffickers. All, including the traffickers, ended up embracing the fundamentalist rhetoric of revenge against infidels.
In January 2013, these groups formed a convoy of several hundred pick-ups and ATVs, armed with heavy machineguns. The desert cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu quickly fell to them. Islamic monuments, including some of Timbuktu’s glories, were destroyed. Sharia law was applied; women who were never forced to do so before had to wear the veil. The convoys even threatened Bamako, the capital, composed mostly of black Africans.
In a panic, acting President Dioncounda Traoré, a colonel from the south, called upon the French authorities to enforce a bilateral defense agreement, though he had contributed to the coup that drove the legally elected former president, Amadou Toumani Touré, into exile, causing the state to collapse and straining relations with France.
France has no interest in Mali other than the protection of its citizens and the stability of the Sahel region. Indeed, France withdrew all of its permanently based military forces from Mali years ago. And, with fewer than a thousand French citizens still living in Mali, even its pragmatic interest is relatively slight.
Although isolated, French President François Hollande courageously decided to respond firmly to Traoré’s call for help. In France, everyone understood and approved.
Few suggest that French military intervention was a means to recapture its colonial empire. And the United States – indifferent to the integrity of the Malian state and the welfare of its citizens in normal circumstances – was aware of the possibility that Mali’s vast territory could fall under fundamentalist/terrorist control. So it decided to take part in the transport, communications, logistical, and intelligence components of the French-led operation.
For similar reasons, Great Britain, though allergic to any common European defense policy, offered two planes. As for Europe, it did nothing – which was foreseeable.
France performed marvelously. In just a few days, it managed to send in nearly 3,000 men, heavily armed and efficiently motorized. Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu were recaptured; Bamako was saved. The fundamentalists, having lost most of their vehicles and arms to French aerial bombing, fled headlong into the desert.
French troops are now set to return home. But, with thousands of fundamentalist killers in the desert, now poorly motorized but still armed, should they do so?
Mali, of course, is not the only country facing a fundamentalist insurrection. Such violence is typical of Islam’s contemporary crisis. The learned, cultured, and radiant traditions of earlier centuries seem to have vanished. Having missed their economic takeoff, many Muslim-majority countries appear open to the call of Islamist fundamentalism.
These countries now require painful, far-reaching reforms to attain economic prosperity, a goal that presupposes cultural change as well. In Christianity, the Reformation was essential to forging democracy and capitalism. But, in contemporary Islam, the powerful have always managed to eliminate would-be reformers. As a result, the Islamic world is mostly weak, partly colonized, humiliated, and economically powerless. Oil benefits a handful of princes.
Despite their travails, only a few thousand of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims have embraced the extremist project of killing infidels and moderates. But, amid the resulting political and religious confusion – and, because religious authorities remain silent in the face of Islamist rhetoric – no Muslim state can solve its problems domestically.
External help is needed. Mali was the first to ask for it, with local religious authorities supporting the government’s request for military assistance from France. Now Mali’s army must be reconstituted, its police trained, and its government restructured. This, too, will be possible only if religious authorities back the necessary reforms.
But, as in Mali, the task of assisting reform in Muslim states is not for France alone. It is the responsibility of the West as a whole.