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Travel Plans: Understanding Religion in Mali

Date:20 December 2013
Author:Christoph Grüll

Over the past few days, the planned UN peace mission to Mali has been covered in the news extensively. In this post Martijn van Loon analyzes the motivation for the Dutch government to participate in this mission, based upon the ‘artikel 100-brief’ discussed in the parliament last week. He observes that the role of religion is underacknowledged in this document, and argues for a better understanding of religion, through a specified analysis of religious views and dynamics, both with the Malian people and the intervening forces.

Last week the Dutch parliament discussed the matter of military forces taking part in MINUSMA, the international stabilization mission to Mali. Members of the parliament were officially informed about this mission by the cabinet through a so-called ‘artikel 100-brief’, a letter elaborating on the local situation, the aim of the mission, and the motives for the Dutch to join in (1). Although, from the looks of it, religion plays a big part in the conflict and serves as an identity marker of certain groups (2), the word ‘religion’ – or ‘godsdienst’, for that matter – does not appear once in this eighteen pages document.

Is there no interest for religion at all? The letter only refers to religion by mentioning Jihadist groups. It shows a short history of the groups’ behavior and achievements in the past, viewed almost as appearing in a chess game – political moves are addressed, but there is no regard given to motives and drives. Neither Jihadists nor ‘secular rebels’ are explained in any depth. This way, their nature is reduced to be merely military and political. Last week in a newspaper article, Jan Gruiters, manager of a major Dutch NGO, expressed his concern on this matter by observing that the cabinet concentrates mainly on combating terrorism (3). This focus, he argued, leads to a reduced emphasis on ‘human security’ – the protection of the Malian people; a striking observation, considering the objectives of the mission (See below). Yet I believe the analytical focus on ‘chess moves’ also demonstrates that expressions and motives of local religious groups are overlooked by the Dutch policy makers.

It makes sense that in preparation for the mission security is the main point of focus. After all, security is essential for stabilization, and it is the military’s primary function. Last week’s debate endorsed that. But, since the idea of the ‘artikel 100-brief’ was to explain the plans for the mission and the reasons for participation, let’s take a quick glance at the objectives of the mission. What does the letter say about those? First of all, the method of MINUSMA for engaging in Mali’s precarious situation is mediating in political dialogue and reconciliation. As a part of that, the Dutch aim is to gather information and intelligence, in order to improve efficiency of the overall mission. Moreover, human rights and gender are two of the Netherlands’ special fields of interest.

With these objectives in mind, it seems highly curious to me that religion has no place in an analytical overview of the mission’s context. Below, I argue that making an assessment of ideas of religion and its social dynamics is vital for a successful military intervention, and a significant contributive factor for the security of our own and the Malian people.

First, the mere naming of Jihadist groups and their military-political achievements while leaving out their background, combined with the absence of any intention to further analyze them, suggests a view of religion as mainly problematic, as an obstacle which does not belong in the public sphere. Such a perception of religion might deviate considerably from general views held by people in Mali. For example, religion could well be a very positive and necessary force in reconciliation processes. To overcome negative assumptions with intervening powers, some self-reflexivity on the subject of religion as a societal factor is important.

Since Jihadism has a central role in the situation, some understanding of local religious views could complete the picture of the conflict and its players. For example, the North of Mali is described as a hotbed for extremism and terrorism, but the question ‘why?’ is missing. In order to gain that insight we need to take interest into why these groups emerge and why they are called Jihadist. We need to get a feeling for how Malians generally view those groups. As the MINUSMA mission aims, among other things, to foster reconciliation between rival groups, it is also important to understand how religion influences power relations and politics in Mali. Here, Dutch ideas of separation of church and state, and public and private domains, may be irrelevant. Without a deeper understanding of local religious ideas, it seems a very difficult task to improve efficiency in a mission that aims to use dialogue and reconciliation as a method. Moreover, without such understanding, how can we hope to address human rights and gender issues?

Finally, the ‘artikel 100-brief’ suggests a 3-D approach, indicating an integrated, cooperative operation of defense, diplomacy, and development organizations – an approach generally maintained in Dutch peace missions for approximately a decade. Why, in this particular case, was this suggestion put forward? It is argued in the letter that simultaneously intervening in security, social structures, government and politics must be done in an integrated, coherent manner. So, if an interconnectedness of all affected areas of the Malian society is recognized, then why is an explicit reference to the religious aspect left out?

Given the religious background and long-lasting engagement of many NGO’s, defense and diplomacy elements could actually profit from these NGO’s’ experience with the topic. I would suggest that the Dutch government attempts to learn from that knowledge, taking religion more seriously into account, and, besides bringing civil experts on security, nation-building, gender and cultural heritage, also brings in some analysts to assess religious understanding and embedding in the Malian society, as part of the broader military intervention.

Martijn van Loon is a graduate student in Religion and Culture at the University of Groningen, doing research on religion and international development in comprehensive peace missions.


(2) For more on this, see Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg’s post from earlier this year.



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