12/18/2012 06:12 pm ET

Mali: Another Case for a New International Approach

Following the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2071 in October 2012, an international military intervention to retake control of northern Mali seemed imminent. After a coup in Bamako earlier in the year, Northern Mali had been taken by rebel groups who benefited from the resulting vacuum of power. However, in his recent report presented to the Security Council on November 28, the UN Secretary General called for caution. He underlined that a military intervention should be the last resort and "the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive political dialogue aimed at forging national consensus around a roadmap for transition."

The international community's experience and wisdom counseled that conducting a military operation unsupported by neighboring countries would not be beneficial without utilizing all other options first. Military involvement would prove even more destabilizing to the hundreds of thousands of individuals displaced by Mali's insecurity which has been seriously compounded by drought and poverty in the Sahel region.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary General Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, on his part, has been exerting efforts to ensure the unity and territorial integrity of Mali and address the massive humanitarian crisis effecting not only Mali but most Sahel countries, particularly Niger and Burkina Faso.

A strategic partnership between the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the OIC Humanitarian Department has sought to raise awareness on the humanitarian crises in the Sahel region and highlight the role of the multilateral humanitarian system in supporting the national responses in these three countries. Despite this innovative partnership, instability in Mali and its implications on the region will continue to pose a complex challenge for the humanitarian community.

Following the visit of the UN-OCHA/OIC Humanitarian Partnership Mission to Africa's Sahel region in November, OIC Secretary General sent a political delegation to Mali and Burkina Faso this week.

While in Mali and Burkina Faso, the OIC delegation met a number of Malian stakeholders including representatives of the Government, political parties, religious leaders, members of civil society, as well as Delegations of MNLA and Ansar Eddine that were supportive of a more active involvement of the OIC in the resolution of the crisis in Mali. This consensus provides local encouragement for Secretary General Ihsanoglu's recent decision to appoint a special envoy for Sahel and Mali.

OIC officials confirmed that a peaceful settlement of the crisis based on respect for the territorial integrity, national unity, and sovereignty of Mali should be sought with an emphasis on the regional efforts of local Malian organizations. A partnership between the local and international governments, institutions and civil society will provide an all inclusive setting for peaceful dialogue and negotiation.

Creation of a broad coalition of local forces against non-indigenous al Qaeda affiliates is necessary before initiating any military intervention. Therefore the efforts of President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso to mediate among the Malian authorities, Ansar al-Din, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), should be continued with diligence. These are local groups that are part of the Malian social fabric.

Specifically, terrorism and organized crime should be rejected forcefully, particularly when attempts are made to link these activities with Islam. All parties to the conflict should seriously engage in the ongoing Burkina Faso-led mediation efforts which seek to find a peaceful settlement.

Additionally, inclusive dialogue and mediation can serve to combat the rigid interpretation of religion in Mali which has contributed to the instability and cannot be effectively countered by military means. Muslim scholars and elders of Mali and Africa can and must play a stronger role.

One promising development is that imams, muftis, Sufi leaders and religious scholars came together in Bamako on Nov. 24-25 with the interim president and prime minister, legislators and politicians. The religious leaders encouraged the dissemination of a message of peace through "true Islam" which they said calls for tolerance and respect for others. Head of the High Islamic Council Mahmoud Dicko stated that no one could impose an ideology on Mali which had a moderate and tolerant culture of religion.

In retrospect, it is of significance that the Final Declaration of the Second African Muslim Religious leaders in Istanbul in 2011 expressed regret that reductionist religion comprehension among Muslims was one of the most significant threats against unity of Muslims and did not cohere with the traditional pattern of Muslim societies. That is, the narrow interpretation of the Islamic principles and practices in total disregard for the very room for alternative interpretations granted by Islam has led to religious intolerance among and within Muslim communities. The declaration invited the Islamic world to make serious self-criticism on this issue which it said was not limited only to Africa.

At a time when tolerance and respect is preached as a virtue in the context of interreligious dialogue, it is evident that intra-Muslim dialogue on this issue becomes even more crucial.