The Washington Post has a tough, but very important, read on the deteriorating situation in Mali. The first point to make is to thank the paper for devoting the resources necessary to bring to light this story about terrorism against vulnerable people. It can't be easy and it's deeply appreciated. The story begins with Fatima Al Hassan being sentenced to 100 lashes with an electrical cord for giving a male visitor to her house. We're told that "Islamist radicals" who've seized the north are to blame. We're told that a coalition of Western and regional powers are preparing to retake northern Mali within the next year.
But such an action, if approved by the U.N. Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer or fall, U.S. and other Western officials say, and political turmoil in the south is adding to the uncertainty. That has raised fears that the extremists could consolidate their grip over the Texas-size territory and further terrorize civilians, particularly women and children.
“The people are losing all hope,” said Sadou Diallo, a former mayor of the northern city of Gao. “For the past eight months, they have lived without any government, without any actions taken against the Islamists. Now the Islamists feel they can do anything to the people.”
Refugees fleeing the north are now bringing stories that are darker than those recounted in interviews from this summer. Although their experiences cannot be independently verified — because the Islamists have threatened to kill or kidnap Westerners who visit — U.N. officials and human rights activists say that they have heard similar reports of horrific abuses and that some may amount to war crimes.
I had previously criticized a piece for writing about the horrors in Mali using a single anonymous source. I liked the way this reporter acknowledged the limits to verifying reports, while doing a great job of working around that problem.
Early in the piece, I hoped we'd learn about what religious beliefs separated these Islamists from the Muslims they're terrorizing. While that was not as well fleshed out as I may have hoped for, we did get specifics about what the Islamists are doing:
The refugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.
We're told that the radicals have "imposed a hard-edged brand of sharia law, echoing Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, in this West African country where moderate Islam has thrived for centuries."
I have suspicions about how moderate sharia and a hard-edged sharia differ but could have used some help spelling it out. Is it a difference in degree of punishment? A difference in what is deemed worthy of punishment? Something else altogether? And the things these radicals are doing -- depriving people of basic freedoms, destroying historic tombs, denying children education, ridding the country of doctors and nurses and clinics -- what, exactly, is the religious defense for these things? We're told they're doing them for religious reasons but I could use some info about the particular religious reasons.
Anyway, the situation sounds just horrific. Roving police squads scour neighborhoods for violations. A healthy amount of the story is devoted to the practices of rape and forced weddings.
[T]he Islamists have ... encouraged their fighters to marry women and girls, some as young as 10, and often at gunpoint. After sex, they initiate a quick divorce. In an extreme case that has shocked the country, a girl in Timbuktu was forced last month to “marry” six fighters in one night, according to a report in one of Mali’s biggest newspapers.
“They are abusing religion to force women and girls to have intercourse,” said Ibrahima Berte, an official at Mali’s National Commission for Human Rights. “This kind of forced marriage is really just sexual abuse.”
In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist commander conceded that his fighters were marrying young girls.
“Our religion says that if a girl is 12, she must get married to avoid losing her virginity in a wrong way,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three radical groups ruling the north. The other two are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the network’s North and West Africa affiliate; and Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith.”
And kudos for getting a military leader on the phone to admit to the practice and explain the religious loophole. We're also told how the radicals manipulate Muslim sentiment to buy children:
“They give $10 to impoverished parents to recruit their children in the name of defending Islam,” said Gaoussou Traore, the secretary general of Comade, a Malian children’s rights group. “The Islamists tell parents that their children will go to paradise, that they will benefit in the next world.”
I like the use of quotes to quickly explain how this practice works.
A section of the story deals with the practice of destroying or vandalizing businesses deemed unIslamic:
Inside his barbershop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favored by American and French rappers on the wall. The Islamists sprayed white paint over it, he recalled, and warned him that he risks being whipped if he shaves off anyone’s beard.
This just reminds me of my requests for additional information on the trial of Nidal Hasan. He's claimed he can't shave his beard for religious reasons. I've wondered why this claim hasn't been explored by journalists. Which schools of Islam teach this?
Anyway, this piece is well worth a read. It's well written and well reported. The ending is quite powerful, too.