I recently read a fascinating and disturbing article in The New Yorker, by Jon Lee Anderson, on the rise and defeat of Islamists in Mali. I was struck by two particular descriptions of the Islamists’ behavior:
“In the central square, Idrissa had witnessed the beating of one of the jihadis’ own men, who had been accused by his comrades of raping a young girl. The spectators loudly criticized the jihadis for a double standard. “Everyone was angry because they didn’t kill him,” Idrissa said. Afterward, the jihadis had gone on the local radio station and warned that anyone who spoke badly about their men would be killed.”
“Then, on day two, the Islamists came,” he recalled. He had asked the leader what he wanted. Naming the northern towns of Mali, he had said, “Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal are Muslim towns, and we want to make Sharia in them. We are not asking. We are saying what we are doing, and we’re here to make Sharia.”
What I found so troubling was not only “the usual” Al Qaeda-related atrocities, but even more so the Islamist’s clearly voiced goal of destroying an existing social system through violence, devastation of cultural heritage (vandalizing local temples and libraries). This was tied together with the idea of creating a different social order based on sexual control, and the replacement of any traces of modern knowledge by radical interpretations of old religious texts. The irony is that these readings are just as contemporary as the lifestyle the Islamists try to erase.
In my opinion, these two quotes illustrate the power of violence combined with unquestionable certainty, able to undermine an entire civilization—its customs, morals, social order, and authorities. They fall apart in the presence of arrogant brutality. The people are too “civilized,” too cultured to defend themselves. The Islamists reject a civilization they claim is morally corrupt, and instead attempt to replace it with a modern essentialist take on an imagined Golden Age of . . .