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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting with H.E. Mr. Dioncounda TraorŽ (President ad interim, MALI). UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting with H.E. Mr. Dioncounda TraorŽ (President ad interim, MALI). UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Yesterday French President Francois Hollande announced that French troops will begin withdrawing from Mali in April, instead of March, as originally planned. Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg explores how religion, particularly religious violence, has been labelled as a threat in the political rhetoric surrounding Mali… but not Syria.

A common assumption in public discourse and in academic and diplomacy circles is that religion causes conflict.[1] Yet if we look at the realities of contemporary conflicts, it becomes clear that religion’s role is highly ambiguous.[2] In some cases, religion is perceived by certain actors as a central component of the conflict that motivates the use of violence. In other situations, despite the significant and overt presence of religious forces, the same actors can view religion as marginal and even irrelevant. This is exactly the case in the conflicts in both Mali and Syria and the stance of the UN and France. While the two conflicts are very different in their nature, one aspect they have in common is the active participation of a regional arm of Al Qaeda, justifying violence in religious terms. Yet the French and UN’s perception of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in both conflicts is entirely different. In the case of Mali, the UN and France both argue that terrorism should be fought. More precisely, the presence of Al Qaeda in the region should be eliminated.[3] When we look at Syria however, both France and the UN are not concerned with Al Qaeda in Syria, represented by the Nusra Front, despite the fact that they are seriously undermining the Syrian Opposition Coalition.[4] How is it that the presence of Al Qaeda is viewed so differently?

It is possible that the Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali are completely different entities, with completely different goals. Yet, it seems to me that the presence of Al Qaeda in both countries takes on a similar form; the use of terrorist tactics by Al Qaeda in Mali and Syria is both global and local in its outlook.[5] By using these methods, Al Qaeda aims at the religious domination of the political sphere.[6]  In other words, the use of violence to achieve political goals is largely done in the name of religion. By behaving as a global transnationalist Islamist movement, Al Qaeda in the two conflicts is in part a form of ‘superterrorism’.[7] As such, the organization seeks a global outreach and pursues existential and non-negotiable goals. It aims to reconstruct the entire world order to an Islamic model.[8] In this respect, the argument that religious terrorism poses a unique security threat has some legitimacy. At the same time, however, both the Nusra Front in Syria as well as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali are forms of conflict-related terrorism. These regional arms of the organization are highly embedded in local asymmetrical power relations and have concrete agendas; they demand more political power and they aim to implement Sharia law.[9] It seems that terrorism in both states is both religious and political in its nature and both local and global in its outlook. If Al Qaeda is present in a similar form in both countries, then how is it possible for the international community to value it as a threat in Mali but not in Syria?

Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde argue that the factual presence of a threat – in our case the presence of terrorist group  Al Qaeda – does not in itself mean it is a threat to the existence of the referent object – or, in this story to the Syrian Opposition Council or the state of Mali.[10] It has to be perceived as such. The authors argue that a specific rhetoric is necessary for something to be made into a threat to an object’s security. This is what they call securitization. Security is essentially about survival. If something is a ‘security threat’, it undermines our basic survival, our peaceful society, our common life together. Conversely, when something is ‘securitized’, we are made to believe that object is essential for our common life and any threat to that object is therefore a threat to our security. Securitization ‘happens’ at the moment something is expressed as a threat to our basic survival; referring to something as an existential threat constitutes it as such.[11]

In line with my argument, religion and more specifically transnational Islamist movements such as Al Qaeda are often securitized. It is referred to as an existential threat to specific states or to the West in general.[12] Carsten Laustsen and Ole Waever argues that “it [the struggle between secularism and religion] is in this sense a conflict between fundamentalists who do not accept the differentiation of church and state and those who argue that religion belongs to the private realm.”[13] It follows, he says, that when terms such as terrorism, fundamentalism or jihadist are conflated and used in public discourse, they serve to securitize.[14] It is a known syndrome; we know what we deal with when such words are invoked. It is dangerous, infectious, it has to be stopped in time and eliminated completely.

This securitization rhetoric has played a significant role in justifying numerous interventions and military actions since the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001.[15] Indeed, it is playing an important role in the way the French intervention in Mali has been discussed and justified in French public statements and the media. Yet in the case of Syria, where religion plays at least an equally prominent role, the role of Al Qaeda in the conflict is hardly mentioned at all and in fact the intervention of religious extremists is even welcomed by international actors, including France and the UN. In Part Two, I’ll explore the role of Al Qaeda in these two different cases to highlight how securitization operates.

Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg is a master’s student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Religion, Conflict and Globalization. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Groningen in International Relations and International Organization. She obtained her Master of Science in Economics in International Relations from the University of Aberystwyth, Wales.


[1] See for example, Farr, Thomas, (2012), ‘The Intellectual Sources of Diplomacy’s Religion Deficit’ Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, Vol.1 No. 1, pp273-287; Fox, J. “Religion as an Overlooked Element in International Relations” International Studies Review, vol. 3, no. 3 (2001), pp53-73; Svensson, Isak and Harding, Emily “How Holy Wars End: Exploring the Termination Patterns of Conflicts With Religious Dimensions in Asia.” Terrorism and Political Violence,23:2 (2011), p. 134  Accessed February 25, 2013. http://www.kent.ac.uk/politics/carc/reading%20group/SvenssonHarding_Ending%20Holy%20Wars.pdf.

[2] Appleby, R. Scott (2000) The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. Rowman and Littlefield: Oxford

[3] Hollande, Francois, (2013) ‘11 January 2013 Situation in Mali, Statement by the President of the Republic’, http://www.franceonu.org/france-at-the-united-nations/geographic-files/africa/mali-1202/article/mali#French-statements.

[5] Stepanova, Ekaterina (2008) Terrorism in Asymmetrical Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pg. 8.

[6] Held, Virginia (2008) How Terrorism is Wrong. University Press: Oxford. Pg.16.

[7] [7] Stepanova, Ekaterina (2008) Terrorism in Asymmetrical Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pg. 10.

[8] [8] Stepanova, Ekaterina (2008) Terrorism in Asymmetrical Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pg. 10.

[10] Buzan, Barry, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde (1998) Security: a New Framework for Analysis. Lynne Rienner: London. Pg. 24

[11] Buzan, Barry, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde (1998) Security: a New Framework for Analysis. Lynne Rienner: London. Pg. 24.

[12] Laustsen, Carsten Bagge and Ole Wæver (2003) ‘In Defense of Religion: Sacred Referent Objects for Securitization’, in: Pavlos Hatzopoulos and Fabio Petito,eds. Religion in International Relations: Return from Exile. Palgrave MacMillan: New York. pg  159.

[13] Laustsen, Carsten Bagge and Ole Wæver (2003) ‘In Defense of Religion: Sacred Referent Objects for Securitization’, pg  , 160.

[14] Laustsen, Carsten Bagge and Ole Wæver (2003) pg , 160.

[15] Lazar, A. and Lazar, M.M. “The discourse of the New World Order: “out-casting”the double face of threat”, Discourse &  Society,  15 (2004) 2–3 pp. 223–242, p. 225-226; Hodges, Adam (2011) The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

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