Mali: Between the ‘curse of Jefferson’ and the ‘spirit of Timbuktu’

The continuing violence in Mali highlights one of the vital challenges facing humanity: the perpetual wars over property acquisition, corporation creeds—the Curse of Jefferson and its radical adversaries from the religious extremists. Both are a clear hindrance to the human potential to break away from perpetual war, and live up to the goodness in all humanity—the spirit of Timbuktu. Challenging the ethical roots of these institutionalized creeds and religious violence is crucial if the current culture of human ‘expendability’ is to be reversed, and the art of life and peace is to be cherished and cultivated.

By the Curse of Jefferson, I mean the pursuit of property at the expense of human life that has dominated the global politics for the last 300 years. Thomas Jefferson was not the pioneer of the idea, nor was he the forerunner behind this dogma from the European Renaissance. But I employ him as a symbol of the trend due to his historical role in drafting the preamble of one of the most cherished human declarations of freedom that men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The pursuit of happiness refers primarily and exclusively to ‘property, ‘and has historically set the standard by which government and the private domains should function and be judged. Therein lies the enduring problem: it has created the perception of equality between three categories of rights—Life, Liberty and Property.

Jefferson’s ordering sets up a moral equivalence. By situating the pursuit of property among the inalienable rights of ‘men’ next to categories of liberty and life, Jefferson provided the moral and legal basis for equalizing and/ or exchanging between these three categories. If the three categories are morally equal, it is not inconceivable to sacrifice one category in pursuit of another that is equally inalienable. It is reasonable to enslave another human in pursuit of property, and it is also plausible to kill a human being in pursuit of property. Under this contextual logic, the original Constitution of the Federation of States in America allowed the South to count slaves as 3/5 of a person. And Jefferson was also able to argue on behalf of the morality of slavery, declaring that, “actual property has been lawfully vested in that form (i.e. slave ownership) and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?” As late as the Reconstruction Era, this logic still resonated in the commonly accepted saying that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Clearly promoting a policy of systematic preference of Native Indian land over Indian life.

This canonization of property and the idealism of its pursuit constituted the legal and moral framework that justified expansionism, neo-colonialism and empire-building by means of military aggression throughout the modern ages. In this atmosphere of consequentialism, where accumulating property justifiesthe means by which it is acquired, human life is assessed as ‘expendable’ and ‘man’ is devaluated as ‘passionate,’ ‘selfish,’ and ‘rationally self-centered,’ while corporations are pronounced as attaining personhood (as in the landmark Court case of ‘Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission). On the global level, many corporations have become war profiteers either by privatizing its armies or proliferating its zones. Modern wars, are no longer for territorial gains, but are mostly justified by the logic of expanding markets, protecting ‘national interest’ or consolidating new resources.

This glitch in ordering moral categories cannot be separated from what Jared Diamond terms the colonial conquering of human societies through Guns, Germs and Steel. The pursuit of ‘happiness’ has cast the template for human suffering in many walks of contemporary societies within the nation-state as well as over the nation-states and drastically so in Africa and the Middle East. No one can ignore the role of the Middle East’s vast energy resources in fomenting wars of influence and possession in the region.

Needless to say the Curse of Jefferson is only a dominant trend in recent history and certainly not a universally shared human promise. The value of life and property among the Wolof of West Africa, for example, mirrors a contrast to this trend. In Wolof ethnography, life belongs to a supreme taxonomy of gift that is not comparable to all other cataloging of rights and values. All other tenets are subservient to preserving human life. Hence, the saying that, “Nit nittay Garabam,” the cure of a human is a human, certainly not wealth. The category of nit (human) is only populated by nit who are honored with the gift of life; they are not exchangeable with other categories of rights. This view also projects a judicious encouragement of property acquisition as long as it belongs to nit, and not vice-versa.

Islamic militancy was a faulty response to the Curse of Jefferson. From its most influential theorist, Sayyid Qutb to its jihadi warrior, Osama Bin Laden, contesting the material creed and opposing its economic violence was the central piece of their arguments. Qutb’s critique of the US from 1952 onward was primarily grounded on a rejection of what he perceived as its material violence. Although he was factually erroneous in many of his assessments of the US, in this criticism, Islam was summoned as a tool for social mobilization. So it is no surprise that to some observers for better or for worse, Qutb  “is theIslamic world’s answer to Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, and Havel.”  His concept of Jahili society to describe violence motivated my material creed was an incomplete assessment or rather a misplaced criticism of the supreme values attached to property acquisition.

Bin Laden was the realization of Qutb’s critique. With no books to his names, no original treatises under his belt (with the exception of a few Jihadi manifestos and less than 50 interviews), Bin Laden was an islamization of the same violence outputs that he claimed to challenge. Bin Laden was but a militarization of Qutb’s view. When all is said and done, the students of Islamic history will remember Bin Laden as the mastermind of a lost generation in Muslim intellectual deliberation, a reductionist of grandiose debate, a disfigurer of a potential philosophical match to the Curse of Jefferson. Islam’s ‘reformist’ tendencies to borrow Bernard Lewis’ wording, and Islam’s ‘universalizing message’, to quote the former poet President Léopold Sédar Senghor, has been wanting in one of the greatest battles of The End of History.

I am of the belief that, had we passed through the last two decades sans Bin Laden’s jihad, we would have advanced human progress toward a more ‘perfect union’ beyond the culture of property personhood. Bin Laden might have been aware and conscious of this possibility. When asked by the Journalist Jamal Abd al Latif in 1998 to sum-up his demands, he clearly stated, “we demand that our land be liberated from the enemies, that our land be liberated from the Americans. God all mighty, may He be praised, gave all living beings a natural desire to reject external intruders.” This type of demands is routinely discussed in the circles of conflict resolutions. Even the US secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to meet Bin Laden halfway in 2003 by announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. It is not an overstatement to argue that a major breakthrough in reformist ideas against the Curse of Jefferson was lost in the fantasy of Bin Laden’s Jihad.

In the wake of Bin Laden’s killing in May 2, 2011, al-Qaeda affiliates appeared to lose directions in his absence because his presence had only allowed for conformity and obedience. This is the source of the inward drift among al Qaeda’s branches in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and the Sahara region. Like Bin Laden, they contest with swords not words, with jihad not ijtihad (independent reasoning). Like Bin Laden, they strip local demands and homegrown problems from their legitimate claims by engaging in dreadful terrorist attacks citing unrealistic goals and immeasurable demands.

Recent development in Northern Mali is an example of that. Like many minority groups in a globalized world, the Taureq of this region of West Africa have been lobbying against the centralized government in Bamako since the country’s independence in 1960. From their fist rebellion in 1962 under the pseudoname, Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (OCRS) to its second rebellion in 1990 under the Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azawad(MPLA), Mali’s Tuareg were always willing to negotiate for the rights of the Azawad people (Combined with Mali’s Arab they are estimated to represent 10 percent of Mali’s about 14 million people) within the political framework of the major stakeholders—Mali’s national government, the mediator role of the northern neighbor Algeria and the former colonial power, France.

Although the peace talks settled the conflict between 1992-1995, there were two new developments in the Tuareg’s problem. One was the Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi’s strategy of using the nomadic Tuareg as a buffer-zone between his regime and the local tribesmen of Libya. In 1980, he declared that Libya was the natural homeland of all Tuareg, and started offering them Libyan nationality. A study by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in 1998 described the impact of Gaddafi on the 1990 peace talks between the Tuareg rebels and the government of Mali in Algeria this way, “This was the famous occasion when Gaddafi appeared magnificently attired as a Tuareg. The Libyan participated little in the discussions, using the meeting to project onto the world’s television screens the image of himself as Chief of the Tuaregs.” Following the long and dreadful negotiations that ended in the 1996-97’s Week of Peace, which is annually celebrated at the Timbuktu Flame of Peace, many Tuareg fighters moved to Libya and served in Gaddafi’s security guards. The second impact was the ideological split within the Taureq and the Arab communities due the rise of militant Islamic transnationalism as a result of the end of the War in Afghanistan. The newly established Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azawad (FIAA) looked beyond the nation state of Mali for ideological and organic affiliations with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, and with militant groups in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

These two trends are the root cause of the current Malian conflict. NATO’s arming of Libyan rebels to overthrow the Gaddafi regime provided heavy weaponry to Islamist militant groups, who were the foot soldiers of the rebels fighting Gaddafi such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and Ansar al-Sharia. The reprisal policies of the new Libyan regime after Gaddafi’s removal and specially against Gaddafi’s former Tuareg allies had forced these groups to return to their homeland of Northern Mali, equipped with more advanced military hardware.

This late group quickly merged into the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) who launched attacks on Mali’s dysfunctional army in early 2012 and took control of the country’s North, while Islamist groups of the North splinted into 4 groups, across racial and ideological lines: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa became allies of the Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali’s group– Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), and the two drove the NMLA out of the controlled regions. Two other groups helped solidify the Islamists march to conquer more territories in the South: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) re-interpreted the Tuareg’s cause into a larger religious conflict between Islam and the West allying its to a splinter group the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, which is an offshoot of Algeria’s global jihadis.

Like Bin Laden, the Islamist’s impact on the legitimate cause of the Tuareg was an abstraction of its political realities and a dismissal of its rightful claims in the region. Look at how Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian leader of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion redefined the Malian conflict in the aftermath of the group’s siege of Algeria’s gas facility. On a January 17 announcement in the Mauritanian Sahara Media, he declared, “We are ready to negotiate with Western countries and the Algerian regime, conditional that they stop the aggression and bombing on innocent Muslim people of Azwade, they should respect the people’s choice in applying Islamic Shariah in Azwade.” Like Bin Laden, there is no clear sense of logical reasoning as places, history and events are fused together in a cacaphony of random accurences. In Belmokhtar’s logic, we are sieging the Gaz Station as panishment for those who allowed ”yesterday’s colonialist (France) the use of our land and our skies to kill our people and our brothers in Mali.”

What went wrong in Mali?

Mali is “Collateral Damage of Libya” to quote Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general.

NATO-led France hurried up a resolution through the UN to get rid of Gaddafi while explicitly dismissing the African Unity’s security concerns. In the discourse prior to NATO’s invasion of Libya, the African Union was concerned with the long term human cost that a civil war in order to remove Gaddafi would bring to the neighboring countries, while the NATO alliance was concerned with expanding oil markets that the absence of Gaddafi’s regime will bring to the shores of European industries. When AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping stated on 30 June 2011, that France’s decision “to air-drop weapons to Libyan rebels is dangerous and puts the whole region at risk,” the pro-NATO media accused AU of being a puppet of the Libyan dictator. For Alain Juppé the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, France’s intervention in Libya was ‘an investment in the future.’ Similarly, a New York Times’ article cited the Foreign Minister of Italy, Franco Frattini commenting on the subject that the Italian oil company Eni “will have a No. 1 role in the future.”

The argument here is neither about Gaddafi, nor about the right or wrong side of the Libyan conflict. The point made here is that, the African interlocutors weighed the human consequences of arming the rebels and suggested a purposive approach to limiting its outlay. NATO’s allies framed the conflict in a process of how to maximize profits through the influx of oil that is close to Europe, available to its corporations. This was a classical manifestation of the Curse of Jefferson. The media saw it and reported its manifestations. The August 22, 2011 New York Times’ subtitle reads “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins.” On  September 1, 2011, The Guardian noted, “The race is on for Libya’s oil, with Britain and France both staking a claim.” On September 1, 2011, Liberation, a French daily newspaper, showed a letter in which the National Transitional Council (NTC) that was trying to unset Gaddafi’s regime, promised “35% of total crude oil in exchange for the total and permanent support for our council”.

The contrast to the ascendant Curse of Jefferson is the Spirit of Timbuktu. Timbuktu is claimed by all warring factions to legitimize their own position. The Tuareg rebellion named it the capital of their so-called the Independent State of Azawad. In Bamako, there is a historical saying that there is no Mali without Timbuktu. On February 2, 2013, the French President, Francois Hollande, paid a visit to Timbuktu, branding himself as the savior of the city, while using the visit as a gesture of goodwill to the skeptics who accused France of being at the root cause of the regional crisis.

Timbuktu is a place that is mostly known in many West African parlance as the ‘homeland of learning,’ ‘the land of knowing’ ‘where learning began.’ Its spirit is sentimentalized in orientalist speculations, and branded by Arab traveler historians of the 13th and 14th centuries as the abode of benevolence and fairness. The yearning for goodness in Timbuktu echoes a plausible alternative to the contour of property wars. In their book, the Meanings of Timbuktu, the Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and the South African author Shamil Jeppie struggle to reconstruct the mysterious and eccentric spirit of Timbuktu from the scattered accounts of European Orientalists, African orality and Arabic travelogues.

In all these postulations, Timbuktu stands out as unique in enticing our imagination of human goodness and altered for its superior spirit. In a British comedy produced in 1933 called Timbuctoo, the protagonist Mr. Kendall retreated from the violence of the modern day into Africa’s ‘Timbuktu’ in search of a meaningful peace. In Roger Hargreaves 1970’s children’s books series, “Timbuctoo” represents originality in the animal kingdom, a search for equilibrium between object and subject.

There is a historical truth to these examples of the intellectual and popular yearnings for the spirit of Timbuktu. In his book, tarikh al-Sudan, a native scholar of Timbuktu, Abdal Rahman al-Sa’di illustrated a typography of the city’s scholars of his time in 1613, concurrently describing them as trusting in the natural goodness in humanity. For example, when talking about a jurist by the name of al-Wangari, al-Sa’di writes, “he was a man given by nature to goodness and benign intent, guileless, and naturally disposed to goodness, believing in people to such an extent that all men were virtually equal in his sight, so well did he think of them and absolve them of wrong-doing.”

It was also near Timbuktu in the Iwalatan land that the traveller and historian of the 14th century (in 1352 to be exact), Ibn Battuta narrates the freedom and beauty of the local women. Despite the Muslimness of their faith, he writes, women were free in developing friendships across genders without fear or reservation. When Ibn Battuta expressed his rejection of the practice to his jurist host, al-Masufi, reminding him of the religious restrictions on women in the Muslim East, the latter informed him that “in our custom friendship between men and women is an innocent act, and the women of this land are not here to measure up to yours.”

It appears that as the French soldiers make their way through northern Mali, the shadow of the Curse of Jefferson’s lingers fresh in recent remembrance. Is it a war for African possessions and territorial integrity, or as was the case with Libya, is it a war ‘for the national interest’? Should we accept perpetual wars for property acquisition as an inevitable reality of global politics?

Is humanity going to hold tight to the Curse of Jefferson as the path through the new millennium? I believe we should explore the shadow of human goodness and pursue other prospects such as the Spirit of Timbuktu.

About Mbaye Lo

Mbaye Lo has spent the last several weeks in Cairo. A native of Senegal, Lo is Assistant Professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic at Duke University, and a Duke Islamic Studies Center affiliated (DISC) faculty member. He has authored many books, including Muslims in America: Race, Politics and Community Building, Understanding the Muslim Discourse: Language, Tradition and the Message of Bin Laden, Civil Society-based-Governance in Africa: Theories and Practices. His current manuscript in-progress is titled “The Geography of 9/11.”
Posted in War on Terror

{ 5 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. tokyobk says:

    Thanks Professor and Mondoweiss for this.

    But isn’t the pursuit (written in English or French, maybe German) of a pure alternative always more Orientalism even if a nativist variety.

    An alternative “Spirit of Timbuktu” requires picking and leaving out. Picking an example of comparative gender equality (there are others), but leaving out a slavery as harsh and robust as Jefferson’s, and a merchant class as sophisticated (and merchant like) as anywhere in the world of its time, more than most.

    There is much to be gained from all the traditions mentioned and a lot better left by the wayside. Why the pure binaries? They are always romantic and misleading.

  2. Keith says:

    Good grief! What an incomprehensible mish mash of dubious conflations. Curse of Jefferson versus spirit of Timbuktu? This from a professor at Duke University? Yet, this is an important topic, therefore, I provide a link to an article by John Pilger that may shed some light on Mali, AFRICOM, and the imperial invasion of Africa.
    link to zcommunications.org

  3. seafoid says:

    I bet climate change in the sahel is the ur cause of the crisis .

  4. MHughes976 says:

    The idea of property rights is not simply a curse. Limitation on the right of sovereigns to take goods from individuals forms a shield against persecution of religious minorities or other unpopulsr groups. If we Euros sacrificed Libyan lives to get our hands on Libyan oil that would not be an assertion of our property rights but cynical and ruthless disregard of theirs. I’m deeply suspicious of our government’s demonising of ‘islamic radicals’ and of the way we barged into Libya not knowing what we did I don’t think our motives in Libya were actually as cynical as all that.

  5. MHughes976 says:

    Just to add that the idea of property rights as developed by Locke also sets moral limitations on the exploitation of military victory. If you want a moral analysis of the injustice and enormity of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians Locke’s Second Treatise chapter 16 is a very good place to look.