Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

North/West African Conflicts and Interfaith Interventionism

By R. Drew Smith


January 25, 2013

By R. Drew Smith 

There are various renditions of an adage that goes something like this: “When the West sneezes, Africa catches a cold.”  This alludes to the fact that global system crises of any sort have an especially deleterious effect upon more precariously positioned members.  Globally expanding terrorism and the war on terror have overtaken many parts of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, fomenting or exacerbating breakdowns in democratic forms of community building and conflict resolution. 

Although the recent  blooms  of a democratic spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya stirred hopes of a wider democratic spillover into parts of Saharan-Sahel Africa, what has spilled over instead (especially as a result of  the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya) has been a torrent of violence perpetrated largely by former Gaddafi mercenaries. 

Hardest hit has been Mali, where during the past year a combination of Tuareg rebels and religious militants with al-Qaeda connections were able to take control of much of the northern section of the country.  With the benefit of massive amounts of arms acquired by Tuareg mercenaries paid to defend Gaddafi’s regime prior to its 2011 collapse, Tuaregs and Islamist militants dislodged the Malian military from northern Mali, declared the territory they controlled independent from Mali, severely constricted freedoms while imposing Sharia law on persons in the north, desecrated hundreds of religious sites and repositories of cultural heritage in Timbuktu and Gao, appropriated resources and belongings (especially those belonging to Christians) and attempted to eradicate Christian presence in northern Mali.  This, along with a military takeover of the Malian national government by forces dissatisfied with the government’s response to the Tuareg and Islamist uprising in the North, has contributed to a massive exodus of more than 250,000 Malians (especially from the North) into neighboring countries. 

With Islamist militants exercising an ever-harsher rule over northern Mali and marching to within a couple hundred miles of the capital city further south, France deployed military personnel in mid-January to fight alongside the Malian army (and potentially alongside troops being sent by neighboring West African nations) in an effort to reestablish government control.  France’s intervention in Mali was subsequently alluded to by a group of Islamist militants as a pretext for a Jan. 16 assault on a gas plant in Algeria and the kidnapping of hundreds of its Algerian and expatriate workers.  The kidnappers’ actions and the response by the Algerian military led to the killing of at least 38 hostages and at least 29 of the 32 kidnappers.  These tragic events in Mali and Algeria, as well as in in the Sept.11, 2012 killings in Libya of the U.S. Ambassador and three embassy staff persons, make clear the trans-regional and international implications of increased interreligious strife in the Saharan-Sahel region.

Even as government leaders from various nations in the region and from the West engage in formal discussions about military, diplomatic and humanitarian responses to the crisis within Mali and surrounding countries, faith communities should be urgently dialoguing about ways to strengthen interfaith cooperation and bridge-building within these conflict zones.  African interfaith organizations have been strategically important because of their potential to reach beyond culturally-confined local contexts and their capacities to respond with a generally well-received religious authority to conflicts within these contexts. 

Interreligious organizations and networks were strategic, for example, in the negotiation and implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan during the 2000s and in efforts to mediate civil conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 1990s and early-2000s. 

Actions that can be pursued by religious leaders in the U.S. include encouraging a greater emphasis within U.S.-Africa policy on democratically-oriented interfaith organizations as strategic partners in conflict mediation in Africa.  Conflict mitigation has been too small a component of U.S.-Africa policy (at least since 2001), especially when compared to the U.S. government’s sizeable allocations in combating African health-related urgencies such as HIV-AIDS and malaria.  Even where the U.S. has targeted conflict-mitigation, an emphasis on strengthening democratic institutions and processes has taken a back seat to strengthening African military capabilities as part of the global war on terror.  African faith-based organizations have been mobilized occasionally as part of the latter, but their social capital may be put to better use if given more autonomous room in which to operate. 

Secondly, American religious leaders can embrace interfaith bridge-building within the U.S. and abroad as a core part of their intra-faith institutional mission as well as through expanded participation in more explicitly interfaith undertakings.  Through systematic pursuit of actions along these lines, American religious leaders build on strategic organizational strengths and moral resources of the American and African faith sectors, and upon the best democratic instincts resident within the U.S. and Africa. 

—R. Drew Smith is Scholar-in-Residence at the Morehouse College Leadership Center and Co-Convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”