By Martin Roth
The latest edition of The Economist has a cover story that it titles “Afrighanistan.” Inside is a four-page Briefing, “Jihad in Africa,” which begins: “Terrorism in Algeria and war in Mali demonstrate the increasing reach of Islamist extremism in Africa.”
Here is a brief excerpt from my novel “Festival in the Desert,” published last year, in which I touched on this problem. The setting is a (fictional) mission hospital in Timbuktu, Mali.
Dr Becker began with a prayer. Through habit, he spoke in French, which was the official language of the hospital, even though not a single person at the table spoke French as a first language.
Then he looked up. “Another staff member has quit,” he said in his soft, correct English. “Intimidated by Islamists. We need to talk about the security of our hospital. Things are getting worse.”
“We seem to talk about that all the time,” grumbled Bobby.
“Because it is a real problem, man” said Dr Steyn. “A growing problem. Even a pacifist like you can surely realize that.” Dr Steyn loved to argue. He sometimes regaled the other doctors with hilarious stories of life at his Dutch Reformed church back in Pretoria, where, it seemed, mid-week business meetings regularly erupted into pitched battles over matters as trivial as car parking or the altar floral display. Then, at church on Sunday, everyone would greet each other lovingly as if nothing untoward had occurred just a few nights earlier.
“I’m not a pacifist…” began Bobby, before being interrupted.
“This is the third girl to quit in three months,” said Dr Becker. “A couple of men turned up near her home. They asked her why a good Muslim girl was working for a Christian hospital. And then they said there was a chance that she could be killed by people angry that she worked for Christians. They even hinted there might be shooting here at the hospital one day.”
“They really said that?” asked Dr Ryu.
“They always say that,” said Bobby. “That’s always the threat they use to intimidate our girls.”
“Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Dr Steyn.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” retorted Bobby. “And the Malian authorities don’t want it to happen. They are working to…”
“The Malian authorities…” The big South African sneered with derision. “Do you think they’re going to save us? Your faith is even stronger than I realized.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, we shall not argue today.” Dr Becker raised both hands in exasperation, though to Bobby it looked more like a signal of surrender.
Bobby felt sorry for the German. He knew that it was not only the day-to-day work that gave him so much stress. He was also under enormous pressures from his supervising board of governors, back in Hannover, where recently it seemed that constant conflict reigned.
Older members of the board stuck to the original mission of helping the afflicted. But the younger members appeared more concerned about saving souls, and wondered why so much money was going to a region where, it seemed, the residents were becoming more stridently Muslim and increasingly antagonistic towards Christianity.
Some were even grumbling that, with funds becoming increasingly hard to source, and with fewer doctors available, then why not simply hand the hospital over as a free gift to what appeared to be a growing number of Muslims who hated this Christian presence in their midst. Let them run it. Or, as one of the governors expressed it to Bobby during a brief visit from Germany, let them run it into the ground.
“I have received a briefing from the German embassy in Bamako,” said Dr Becker. “Everything is getting worse.”
“Surely it can’t get much worse,” said Dr Ryu. “We all know that a lot of countries are telling their citizens not to travel to this part of Mali.”
“Doesn’t this festival start tomorrow?” asked the South African. “This festival in the desert? What’s it called…?”
“It’s called the Festival in the Desert,” smiled Bobby.
“That’s meant to attract the tourists. How will it manage if no one comes?”
“They’re still coming. I’ve just treated one downstairs for contaminated cocaine.”
“Drugs is just one of the problems,” said Dr Becker. “And it is getting worse, according to the embassy briefing I’ve received. We all know that the Sahara has become the transit point for shipments from South America, heading for Europe. That’s not new. But the big problem, the main problem now, is Al Qaeda. They are increasingly active. They are targeting this whole region. The whole of West Africa. All these traditionally moderate Muslim countries. They view them as a place for expansion. They are trying to radicalize the people. That’s why we see them in the markets more and more. Talking to local people.”
“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”
“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”
Dr Becker paused and glanced around. He looked a forlorn figure, with his white hair and lined face and wire-rimmed spectacles that sat at the end of his nose. “And then there are the Tuaregs. Thousands of them were forced to escape from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, and now they’re back home, heavily armed and stirring up trouble. They’ve renewed their war of liberation against the government.”
“Are they a threat to us?”
“They’re a threat to everyone. They say they want self-rule. But a lot of criminal elements are involved as well. They’re involved in kidnap. Extortion. Whatever. Westerners will always be a target. And they are all mixed up together.”
“Al Qaeda. The Tuaregs. The drug dealers. Sometimes they’re enemies, fighting each other. But sometimes they’re friends, when it suits them. This whole region is becoming a lawless Wild West.” He looked at Bobby, the only American in the room, as if he were somehow responsible for all lawless Wild Wests around the world.
“So what does all this mean?” asked Dr Ryu.
“It means our hospital is a target.”
“A target? From whom?”
“Al Qaeda, most likely.”
“Your embassy said that?”
“They believe it.”
“Believe it? They know of something being planned against our hospital? I thought it was all just a lot of talk.”
“They don’t have evidence that anything is planned against our hospital. But they told me that Al Qaeda loves Christian targets. And Jewish targets too, of course, though there’s none of them here. And we know that Al Qaeda has already kidnapped foreigners in this region. That’s how they finance their operations. By extorting ransoms. It’s the reason so many governments in the West are telling their nationals not to travel here.”
Bobby objected. “But we’re serving Muslim people here. They love us. The government wants us here. Everyone knows that.”
Dr Steyn spoke up. “Come on, man. Al Qaeda is out to cause trouble. They want Christian targets. They want to kidnap people. We’re one of the most visible. What about those ten people killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. Including doctors. Or the French priests killed in Algeria by Islamists? Including a doctor. They don’t care if the local people love us or if the government supports us. We’re Christians and we’re the enemy.”