Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Veils For Women in Timbuktu- Islamists Take Over More Than Half of Mali

A struggle between secular democracies and Islamism is on the rise in the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa. The latest country to succumb to the battle is Mali. The West African nation (of Timbuktu fame), was recently subjected to a military coup, after 21 years or so of a constitutional democracy. Considered relatively stable (until now), Mali has a population that's 90% Muslim. And though a secular state with a constitution that allows for freedom of religion, that's rapidly changing.

Troubles began in early 2012 in the north with a separatist group, comprised of the Tuareg (Berber nomad) peoples, who want to liberate the Azawad region of northern Mali (where Timbuktu is located) from the Mali government. The Islamists, Ansar Dine, want Mali to become an Islamic state. The coup was in response to President Amadou Toumani Touré's  failure to handle the insurgency,  but that in itself has made the situation in the African nation ten times worse.  In fact, the coup has allowed Tuareg rebels and Islamists in the north to take over half of the country, and the Islamists are working rapidly to establish their religious agenda, including forcing women in Timbuktu to wear veils.

Islamists seized control of the ancient trading hub Timbuktu over the weekend alongside Tuareg rebels and have since chased out their allies and declared to residents and religious leaders that they were imposing sharia law.

This sparked alarm abroad ahead of an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on Mali, with Paris expressing concern over the Islamist threat in a country considered a democratic success until the coup.

The Tuareg rebels want an independent state while Ansar Dine which has seized Timbuktu wants to impose Islamic law and has linked up with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told AFP the two were “closely tied” and Ansar Dine’s “goals are not clear, but it may be to install an Islamic regime across the whole of Mali.”

Three of the four leaders of al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch, Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam, were in Timbuktu on Tuesday, security and religious sources in the city said.

Residents reported women in the normally secular city that hosted a major music festival in January were on Tuesday wearing headscarves.

In spite of sanctions and calls for the junta to relinquish power immediately, no-one's budging, yet.  The coup leaders claim they don't want to stay in power forever, and are calling for a "national convention" set for April 5, to discuss the transition back to civilian rule. But the longer they wait to settle things, the worse the situation will get.  The rise of Islamism in Mali wasn't the result of a thirst for democracy that turned sour, like the Arab Spring; the country already had a democratic, secular society, and President  Toure' wasn't a Mubarak.   In this case, the military facilitated the takeover by Islamists through their coup d'etat, and any further delay will allow the Islamists to claim more territory.

UNESCO (the U.N.'s cultural agency) is worried about what might happen to Timbuktu's "outstanding architectural wonders”,  and though that is worrisome, what I fear the most is the loss of freedom, for women in particular, in an Islamic state.

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