In his book 1984, George Orwell says: “He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.”
When seeking a balanced glimpse into the history of Islam in Africa, the journey is enlightening. This is especially true when researching areas like Mali and Nigeria – both of whom hosted two of the most glorious African Islamic empires in the history of the world: that of Mansa Musa (14th and 15th centuries) and the Sokoto Caliphate of Uthman don Fadio (19th century).
Documents recovered in Timbuktu show that it was through these men that the light of Islamic law, literature, the sciences and exploration spread throughout the continent, and under whom other religions were not only respected but protected.
African Islamic history is re-emerging
Despite some concerted attempts to prevent it from doing so, the history of Islam in Africa is re-emerging and forcing us to reconsider current Eurocentric history.
Two huge maritime voyages of the Malian Empire under the command of the explorer king Mansa Abubakari II, who succeeded Mansa Musa, and is said to have landed in the Americas 181 years before Columbus. This explains the fascinating accounts of the Muslim roots of Afro-Caribbean slaves, and also the shadows of Islam in the early blues.
Recent academic research in the US has found that Islam formed a pivotal force in both the shaping of early American law and in the calls to end slavery there.
But Mali is also a key focus in the West’s ‘War on Terror’. Caught amidst this terrible conflict are the documents and knowledge that bear testimony to this glorious past: in Timbuktu.
French colonisation and the Tuareg resistance
A closer look at the roots of the current conflict cannot ignore the nation’s northern populations, especially the Tuareg people, nomadic Berbers who adopted Islam in the 7th century and took the religion throughout north Africa.
When the French colonised the region at the turn of the 19th century, Tuareg Muslims mounted fierce resistance, winning some decisive battles, but in the end, had to accept the superiority of France’s weaponry.
The dismemberment of the territory under France, and the introduction of foreign governance and economic systems, together with desertification in the north, reduced people to extreme poverty and ethnic conflict that simmers to this day.
This conflict, since 9/11, has been framed within a ‘War on Terror’ narrative. The Tuareg uprisings, however, are not purely an “Islamist” problem, as so-called experts have characterised it. Anti-government and anti-French sentiment is not the sole purview of the Muslims – rather it extends to other ethnic groups in the economically crippled north and is grounded in valid grievances.
According to the World Bank, almost 44 percent of Malians live below the poverty line, which is a travesty considering the abundant natural resources of the region.
A war driven by global consumerism
France’s interests in the region are primarily economic. Their military actions protect their access to oil and uranium in the region – all of which are required to sustain the demands of consumerism.
French energy giants like Total control many of the downstream oil distribution networks in Mali, which arise in the Taoudeni Basin, a massive oilfield that stretches 1,000 km (600 miles) from Mauritania across Mali and into Algeria.
An incredible 75 percent of France's electric power is generated by nuclear plants that are mostly fuelled by uranium extracted on Mali's border region of Kidal – a region beset with violence between French-backed troops and forces of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Let's not forget about the gold; Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer, and there are several multinational mining companies, including Randgold (UK), AngloGold Ashanti (South Africa), B2Gold (Canada) and Resolute Mining (Australia), that have huge operations there.
Major players in the conflict
The conflict in Mali involves several players, including the Malian army, which relies on support from the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as French forces with the tacit support of the US and the UK, and other allies.
These forces up until very recently were pitted against various violent groups – like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Al Dine (AAD) – but those have now united under Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), or the Group to Support Islam and Muslims.
This group also includes members of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), under the leadership of Iyad Ag Ghali, a historical Tuareg fighter (and member of MNLA) and who has pledged allegiance to the Taliban and Ayman Mohammed Rabie al Zawahiri.
The dominant colonial player, France, is supported by the United States through three covert bases. The US also funds a variety of ‘hearts and minds’ programs including radio stations and counter-extremism initiatives, in the same manner as elsewhere in Africa under the banner of “aid”.
The Malian people face the constant threat of armed drones operated by France under the pretence of incinerating the “militant” who “dissimulates himself amidst the civilian population”.
Accusations of war crimes abound against armies on all sides of the conflict, but there is no objective, reliable and transparent judicial process to address yet another of the many global sinkholes of violence exacerbated by the ‘War on Terror’.
Dialogue must allow a return to the best of Mali’s peaceful past
Groups opposing the French-backed militarisation of the country use anti-colonial language from an Islamic perspective, and their message is: you have to chase the French coloniser who hates Islam.
With the ongoing abuse and conflict in the area and the continued removal of resources by Western multinationals in the face of dire poverty and suffering, it is not hard to see why this narrative has gained traction. This statement is not to condone it – far from it – but the context of rage and violence must be understood to chart a path ahead that is genuinely invested in peace and equality.
Key to finding peace in the region is that Islam should be allowed to flourish as it did under Musa and Fodio, despite current concerted efforts to shroud Islam there in dishonour.
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