Diplomatic Official Calls for Nuanced Approach to African Politics
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 03:02
Michael Pelletier (SFS ’86), deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Bureau of African Affairs in the U.S. State Department, argued for a nuanced interpretation of growing turmoil caused by violent extremism in West Africa on Monday afternoon.
Pelletier discussed the recent strife in Algeria and Mali and cautioned the audience to be mindful of labelling political organizations in West Africa.
“I'd like to start by addressing and emphasizing that words matter,” Pelletier said. “Our use of names and words has a huge power. They can legitimize or delegitimize a cause. They can make it easier or harder for individuals to solve problems.”
According to Pelletier, recent events in Algeria and Mali have been oversimplified in Western media coverage. He criticized the media for automatically tracing the cause of violence back to Islamic terrorist organizations. Pelletier instead advised students and faculty to seek out a more nuanced understanding of the factors behind the turmoil.
“I’m frankly not comfortable putting the two words of Islam and militantism together in the context [of what has happened in Algeria and Mali],” Pelletier said. “The situation is far more complicated than just being of a religious or sectarian nature. Looking at the picture solely through a religious lens won't help us really understand it in full or help governments and agencies address it. We must have a full understanding of all of the social, economic and political strains in the region.”
Pelletier believes that the region’s colonial past, widespread inequality in land distribution and political dissociation of the non-ruling classes can help people better understand the violence in the West Africa.
Pelletier said that the colonization of Algeria has led to the ossification of pre-existing tribal power structures. Colonial officials long supported the rule of autocratic emirs and sultans who refused to cede autonomy to local populations. Some young West Africans have turned to militant groups in search of political legitimacy, such as al-Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have claimed responsibility for attacks on emirs and sultans in the region in the past few years.
“These attacks signify a real social break,” Pelletier said.
Pelletier also emphasized the need to look at the complexity of each country’s religious composition in West Africa.
“We need to understand and respect that there are many different variants of Islam,” Pelletier said. “It is particularly incumbent upon us as Americans to understand that diversity and not make the mistake of delegitimizing it as we so often have. We in the international community don't need to reinforce or lend creditability to extremists by labelling them as Islamic or un-Islamic.”
Pelletier said that terrorist organizations threaten peace because of their violent tactics.
“At their core, [organizations like al-Qaeda] are criminal, violent, illegal groups who get their money from drug trafficking and kidnappings,” Pelletier said. “And they are designated as terrorists because of their crimes not because of their religion. Their actions do not represent that hopes and dreams of the vast majorities of their countries.”
He also said the U.S. State Department supported French efforts to liberate northern Mali from the control of religiously conservative and violent extremist groups. Both France and the U.S. support a solution that will be spearheaded by local, not Western, actors.
“[We and the French] see the situation from a very similar point of view,” Pelletier said. “They have always been very clear about the fact that the best long-term solution will be a Malian and an African-led solution.”
Georgetown students said they found Pelletier’s presentation very compelling and thoughtful.
“As an student looking at the different certificate programs in the School of Foreign Service, I found most striking his ability to talk about such big issues and such a diversity of issues and at the same time be able to maintain an emphasis on the nuance and subtle distinctions between all the different groups who play a role in the political process,” Anna Hernick (SFS ’16) said.
Connor Swank (SFS ’16) agreed.
“I thought he generated a good conversation and that he did a good job of cutting through the superficial impressions we can get in following the general media,” Swank said. “I appreciate how he reminded us to look past generalizations and to deductively analyze the developments in the African region and all around the world.”