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Securitizing Religious Violence: the Cases of Mali and Syria – Part Two

Date:11 March 2013
Security Council Meeting on the situation in Mali. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Security Council Meeting on the situation in Mali. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg  continues her exploration of the securitization of religion in the conflicts in Mali and Syria.

In Part One of this post, I discussed securitization as the tool that enables competing conceptions of the threat posed by Al Qaeda to exist in the worldviews of the same actors. In Part Two, I want to explore the mechanics of how this works, with specific reference to the views of the UN and France on Syria and Mali.

In the case of Syria, a divide along religious lines partly explains the conflict, yet neither the UN nor France views religion as an aspect of the conflict that threatens the existence of the state. To the contrary, one might argue that the French and the UN actually welcome the presence of the Islamist groups.  Part of the problem in Syria is that President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Shi’a religious Alawi minority. The majority of the country is Sunni, yet the top positions in the government and in the security apparatus are strictly in the hands of the Alawi religious clan.  This monopolization is tremendously frustrating for many Syrian Sunni Muslims. Part of the rebellion, then, is inspired by this irritation, and in fact, Sunni sentiments are used to aggravate the tension (1). The most successful rebel group is the one with ties to the fundamentalist organization Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front.(2) This group is inspired by the worldview Bin Laden advocated of a global Jihad and an Islamic society.(3) If and when Assad leaves, this group will be very influential and will aim at implementing Islamic Sharia law (4). They are the most important rebel group that does not recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition. The Nusra Front is seriously challenging the Opposition’s authority and sabotaging any form of political dialogue. Yet, the French response does not, as one might have expected, position the Nusra Front as a threat.  French public statements, do not mention any threat of religious violence on the part of the Sunni rebels (5). Rather, the French are calling for continued political dialogue amongst the rebels in order to form a coherent front (6). The same view is echoed by the UN, who call for political solutions and dialogue (7). While the reasons are many and complex as to why the UN Security Council is unable to take proper action, it is clear that neither the French nor the UN refer to the presence of Al Qaeda in Syria as an existential threat. The simple factual presence of groups that are linked to terrorist organizations does not in itself mean that religious violence is securitized and characterized as a threat.

Let us then turn to the case of Mali. The unrest in the West of the African continent is the result of complicated history. Ever since early 2012 the situation has been precarious in Mali. When the government lost its authority over the northern part of the country, Islamist movements filled the power vacuum. Other African states offered to provide support for the Malian army in combating these violent groups at the end of 2013, but the French argued that this would be too late. These terrorist movements were on the verge of taking over the country and the existence of the state of Mali was at stake (8). Francois Hollande’s statement at the UN General Assembly, demonstrates this hyperbole:

“The situation created by the occupation of a territory in northern Mali by terrorist groups is intolerable, inadmissible and unacceptable, not only for Mali, who is directly affected by this terrorist evil, but for all the countries of the region and, beyond, for all those who may one day be the victims of terrorism.” (9)

And so, on the 11th of January this year the French moved into Mali. Up until now, there are over 4000 French troops deployed. “Yes, we had to respond:  it was important to fight, because it was terrorism. Terrorism here in Mali, terrorism in West Africa, terrorism everywhere”, so the French President stated, claiming the intervention was inevitable (10). Terrorism was effectively securitized. A military solution became the only possible option and a political dialogue was out of the question. Even Ban Ki Moon expressed his gravest concern:

“Mali is under grave threat from extremist armed insurgents.  The country is calling for, and needs, our help. (…) I applaud France for its courageous decision to deploy troops following the troubling move southward by extremist groups.” (11) 

Yet, as was illustrated by the situation in Syria, the mere presence of Al Qaeda in the crisis does not mean it is a threat to the security of the state of Mali. What is more, the Malian government the French are trying to preserve lacks integrity and democratic legitimacy as it was established by a coup following a rebellion.(12) In fact, the whole French intervention lacked legitimacy at first; international support has also not been as broad as it seems. Susan Rice, permanent Representative of the US at the UN has said that the French plan for intervention is “crap”; the US is concerned that the intervention came too early (13). In effect, even the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, initially argued against the intervention, calling for political negotiations and new elections before resorting to force (14). As you might recall, he is now actively supporting the intervention. What happened?

What happened was that the state of Mali was securitized by referring to religiously motivated violence as ‘terrorism’, turning the factual presence of Al Qaeda into an existential threat. Threats are never objective, in so far as they relate to a specific logic. The presence of Al Qaeda in itself is not an objective ontological threat, but rather a factor that can be casted as a threat when it is used in public discourse. The conflation of “terrorism”, “Islamist”, “jihadist” and “fundamentalist” in contemporary political rhetoric makes this move all too easy. Yet, as we saw in the case of Syria, this does not mean religiously motivated violence is always securitized.  But in current political discourse on Mali it is readily apparent that this is occurring. It seems that whether or not religiously motivated violence is an existential threat is a matter of labelling. Yet, current world leaders continuously tell us that they are fighting terrorism, fundamentalism and Islamist jihadists to protect us from danger. I am not saying religiously motivated violence is not dangerous, or that terrorism as an existential threat does not exist, but that maybe we – as the public to which such discourses are addressed – ought to be a bit more conscious of when and how this logic is used to legitimate certain foreign policies.

Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg is a master’s student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Religion, Conflict and Globalization. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Groningen in International Relations and International Organization. She obtained her Master of Science in Economics in International Relations from the University of Aberystwyth, Wales.








(8) Hollande, Francois, (2013) ‘11 January 2013 Situation in Mali, Statement by the President of the Republic’,

(9) François Hollande, President of the French Republic, Opening debate of the 67th session of the General Assembly to the United Nations, 25 September 2012.

(10) Hollande, Francois (2013) ‘ Mali – Speech by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic , Bamako, 04/02/2013,


(12) see for example

(13) ‘Lynch, Colum (2012) Rice: French plan for Mali intervention is ‘Crap’.’

(14) Ki-Moon, Ban (2012) ‘Report of the Secretary General on the Situation in Mali’, S/2012/894.


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