By Vatican News staff writer
In Mali, where the recently-constituted transitional government is battling a violent insurgency propelled by religious extremism, many young people - pushed by poverty and socio-economic difficulties – may become easy recruits for jihadist groups.
“Jihadism is fueled by injustice, poverty and misery,” affirmed Father Arvedo Godina of the White Fathers. “Thousands of unemployed young people look for hope, which they find in an extreme form of religiosity that leads them to take up arms against anyone who does not profess their faith.”
Of 10,000 boys and girls that graduate each year, “only a thousand can find work immediately”, explained Fr. Arvedo. The other 9,000 remain unemployed and keep on applying for public positions, often with poor prospects. Many others who can, emigrate.
Father Arvedo has served as a missionary priest in the diocese of Bamako for 52 years. He was first coadjutor in the parish of Kati, then he took up the job of a lecturer and Director of the Kulikoro Seminary. Since 1992, he has served in the catechist training centre near the Kati mission.
Mutual acceptance and dialogue over conflict
Fr. Arvedo explains that the situation of violent extremist religious conflict in the country has not always been this way. In fact, he remarks that the local culture is based solely on a welcoming attitude.
“Among the Bambara, there is a saying that goes: ‘In a village, first the cooking place is built and then that of the mosque’,” he said. This means that “respect for people and for dialogue between people comes first, and then differences in belief.”
He went on to say that he recently calculated that 49% of couples in the Kati community are mixed, with Christian and Muslim individuals intermarrying. Mutual acceptance, he notes, results from this mixture because “real dialogue takes place in families and therefore has deep roots.”
However, “this mutual respect is threatened by the spread of Islamic extremism,” Fr. Arvedo said.
Poverty: a key factor among others
Fr. Arvedo’s work as a prison chaplain has put him in contact with incarcerated militiamen. He explains that many poor, young people without hope have “thrown themselves in the arms of the jihadist networks” saying that they are fighting “against Westerners and Christians who they see as the cause of their misery.” He said that he tries to get many to understand Christianity and sometimes is able to establish a friendship with some. However, others reject dialogue, and when they are released, are ready to return to the ranks of the religious extremists.
Further compounding the situation is the scourge of corruption which “is widespread and is an obstacle to the social and economic growth of the nation.” The UN estimates that illegal international drug trafficking in Mali which generates several billions per year, leads to further corruption, violence, despair and drug addiction.
Mali’s jihadist groups came to the fore after rebels of the Tuareg tribe began an offensive against government forces in 2012. At the beginning of the insurgency which broke out in the north, some extremist jihadist groups fought alongside the rebels against Malian forces.
Unable to regain control of the country’s north despite initial small successes in repressing the insurgents in the north, the government reached out to France and the international community for help. In 2013, a military intervention by French forces helped to impede the advance of the jihadist forces towards the south. Currently, Mali is receiving military assistance from the UN as part of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) which was established by the UN Security Council in 2013.
In 2017, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad formed the “G5 Sahel” to curb the flow of terrorists in the Sahel region.
In the wake of the long-running conflict, many of these extremist groups have attempted to attract new recruits by capitalizing on ethnic, regional and religious divisions within the nation. Some also present themselves as righteous defenders of Islam. Though Mali is predominantly Muslim, the majority condemns the violent attacks of these jihadist groups.