Mali, Shari'a, and the Media

Reporting tends to portray Islamic Sharia law as barbaric. Guest blogger Alex Thurston writes that this tendency hinders a chance to understand countries like Mali in their complexity.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

Reporting on shari’a law and groups who attempt to impose their version of it often leans toward the sensational. This tendency appears to reflect the views of many Western journalists, and much of their audience, that shari’a is barbaric, violent, and misogynist, and its application trivial and arbitrary. Negative Western views on Islamic law have, to put it mildly, a long history; for just one example, take Max Weber’s notion of “kadijustiz,” whichThe Max Weber Dictionary defines (p. 136) as “an irrational type of justice focused on the single case.” Kadi/qadi is Arabic for judge.

I mention this tendency in the media not because I want to make an apology for those who impose shari’a but because I believe that news coverage can blur our sense of context and cause us to misread the political relationships between those who apply a version of shari’a and those to whom it is applied. Reading coverage of shari’a in the news – coverage that tends to follow a model established in reports on Afghanistan, and extended to Somalia – one might easily get the impression that shari’a is simply an alternation of cruel acts and ridiculous ones. One moment the Islamists are stoning a woman, the next they are banning soccer. What this kind of coverage misses is how shari’a fits into the systematic attempts at state-building that groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Shabab in Somalia, and Ansar Dine in Mali pursue. (Comparing such groups is fraught with peril, but we can at least establish these commonalities between them: they are all interested in shari’a and state-building, and the media has emphasized the brutality of shari’a when discussing all of them. Indeed the comparison may be most apt when we are talking about the media, rather than about events on the ground.)

With this in mind, recent reports on shari’a in Mali begin to seem contradictory. VOA writes:

Residents of northern Mali say Islamist militant groups currently running parts of the region are trying to win hearts and minds with an odd mix of punishment and charity.

The groups carry out harsh corporal punishment they say the religion requires, while at the same time doling out cash and other gifts.

Note how mixing punishment with charity – or could we say mixing law with social services, which are core functions of any state? – is described as “odd.” Note how corporal punishment is marked as motivated by “religion,” yet “doling out cash and other gifts” is not, even though charity is fundamental to Islam. Whipping a couple for having premarital sex, the article implies, was “shocking.” Rewarding the couple with money and gifts after they married was simply a way of trying to win the poor young man “over to their way of thinking.” Does this reward have no religious significance?

I am not saying that members of Ansar Dine are motivated solely by piety and that political calculation does not shape their thinking; quite the contrary. But is it a stretch to view all of these actions – the punishments and the charity, the whippings and the gifts – as part of an effort to impose a system seen by its architects as internally consistent, politically effective, and religiously proper?

The political opportunism of Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali has been well documented, but my impression is that at least some of Ansar Dine’s leaders and fighters take piety quite seriously. Let’s look at AFP’s article “Wine, Women and Song Tempt Mali’s Islamists.” It describes the Ansar Dine delegation’s reaction to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where they met with regional mediators and with representatives of rival group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, a secular Tuareg-led group fighting for the independence of northern Mali). One could read the article as exposing Ansar Dine’s delegates as country bumpkins fighting to keep their pants on in the big city. But from the article it seems that it was Ansar Dine’s delegates who mentioned the “test” they faced to AFP’s reporter, and not the reporter who caught them in the grip of temptation. Perhaps they brought up the test to emphasize that they were passing it. The delegates scrutinized what they ate, where they prayed, and how their environment affected them; these are men who care about piety, or at least want observers to believe they do.

Back in northern Mali, reporters tell us, people don’t want shari’a. But the reporting is self-contradictory enough that it becomes difficult to tell what the situation is. People flout Ansar Dine’s rulings, we learn. And yet we also learn that people live in fear of “fighters they say carry arms everywhere, from the market to the mosque.” The people are tired and may soon revolt, we hear. But we also hear that “living conditions in Gao have improved somewhat since early April…The hospital was looted in April but is functioning again under Islamist protection.” It would be reasonable to conclude from these various reports that there is real chaos in the north, and deep division among the population. We could also conclude that Ansar Dine enjoys at least some support; surely hospitals, aid, and a form of law have benefited some civilians.

The media narrative about places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Mali has often boiled down to, “Good local Muslims just want peaceful, ‘traditional’ Islam, but the bad outsider Muslims with guns want to go back to the seventh century.” I find narratives like that too simple. Politics is complicated, and understanding it is too, particularly when information about a locality is so limited and confusing.

In previous posts, I have referred to Ansar Dine’s approach in northern Mali as “law-and-order Islamism.” I stand by that. A civilian population terrorized by men with guns may not always distinguish between different groups with different worldviews. Indeed, some of the residents quoted in the linked articles above seem to lump the MNLA and Ansar Dine into the same general category of thugs. But some residents will make a distinction, and Ansar Dine’s approach – which, I will reiterate, at least attempts to be internally consistent – seems to win some support by offering a form of law-and-order, backed by concrete social services. The MNLA, in contrast, has sometimes offered only chaos and suffering. Tellingly, it is the MNLA that has launched a campaign of reconciliation with local populations, not Ansar Dine.

In case there is any doubt about my own views, I think women should be allowed to make their own choices about fashion and sex, that youth should be allowed to watch and play games, that people should have religious freedom. I find the situation in northern Mali upsetting. But if news coverage of shari’a only provokes our indignation and not our reflection, we miss the political context, and we risk our ability to understand the complexity of religious life in a place like northern Mali.

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– Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs atSahel Blog.

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