Organic State and Islamist Militancy: Flashpoint Mali

Fellow geograblogger Catholicgauze asserts in, the always informative, Geographic Travels that geography is against the Taureg Islamist expansion in southern Mali in a recent post. Z Geography would like to build some caveat and context, for I think that Catholicgauze overstates that geography is a barrier and “against the Islamists as they try to take over the rest of Mali.” Catholicgauze’s cogent argument for this conclusion focuses on the differing ethnic makeup of the south (human geography) and the more complex nature of the terrain (physical geography), but while he interprets this as a difficulty I believe it is an opportunity for the Islamist movement.

Let’s draw on the organic state concept. The movement’s demesne is already largely independent of the Malian state, the primary evidence is that Azawad exists in the first place. In effect, the Taureg Islamists have already reached the status of maintaining a parallel state within Mali. This control of a geographic area and its constituent population (albeit small) allows the creation of an insurgent state (borrowing geographer Robert McColl’s terminology). For the moment, the movement must accomplish two things, first the movement needs to maintain this insurgent state, which is easy considering how remote the area is and how inept, corrupt, and under-equipped the Malian state is. In addition, the movement needs to adapt to spread.

This second adaptation in tactics would require time. Whereas Mao switched his revolution from the urban areas to the rural, the Taureg Islamist must do the opposite. Rather than base their appeal on an ethno-centric basis (centering on the Taureg) I would expect they would loosen some of the ethno-cultural ties of the movement and emphasize the necessity of pan-Islamism (political Islam) to resonate with non-Taureg groups. As already state, the Malian state is already corrupt so locals probably aren’t in love with the regime or the state and may be easily swayed to supporting a redefinition of the state. Look at the success of political Islamists in Bangladesh, there the Islamist political party emphasizes its Islamic credentials and the corruption of the more secular parties (though the party is just as corrupt…).

Of course, this second adaptation is much more difficult. Humans love to group themselves and exclude “others,” perhaps the Taureg won’t see the necessity in including other ethnic communities? If they do, new ethnic groups in the movement would need to be convinced of the value of this new state, see the spoils offered, and be reasonably sure that it continue in the future.

This internal conversation within the Taureg Islamist movement would essentially indicate the organic change in their insurgent state. Should the state become more inclusive, spreading into southern areas, putting the recognized state on the defense? Or should it simply maintain the status quo of a practically independent Azawad? This, of course, is a purely political question. Broadening their appeal to the non-Taureg southern communities would also necessarily bring about different tactics, away from the pickup cavalry, I would imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Egypt or the Algerian independence movement’s actions in the 1950s would be instructive in this regard.

And then there’s the French. Their actions also fit into the organic state framework. France is acting as the agent of the Malian state, extending (or at least attempting to) the state’s reach and turning back the insurgent state. Of course, this beggars thoughts on a future without France.

To me there are three potential scenarios. First, an independent, sovereign Azawad, which would be most beneficial to the Taureg who would have enjoyed popular sovereignty (an American dream remember?). Second, a newly resurgent Malian state that somehow manages to extend itself into “Azawad,” which would also be beneficial to the Taureg communities as they gain access to the spoils of the state (though whether these are enough to satiate rebellion would remain to be seen). And the third (and most likely), the status quo, Mali (with international help) defeats Azawad, extends its writ for 5 years, retreats under corruption and lack of capacity, and Azawad fills the vacuum.

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3 thoughts on “Organic State and Islamist Militancy: Flashpoint Mali

  1. Many (I want to say all but won’t because I can’t prove it) North African insurgencies have tribal/ethnic bases which could not be broken by claims of pan-whatever. Algeria’s war of independence is a good example of this as is its 1990s civil war. Ditto for Chad and Sudan. Western sub-Saharan wars follow this same trend.

    As a barrier, though, I did not mean a solid unbreakable wall. Merely a hurdle which would be difficult to surpass.

  2. Pingback: Almost sensible: Making (Geographic) sense of Mali | Z Geography

  3. Pingback: Military Geography and Mali: the Afghanistan-effect | Z Geography

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