In March 2012, my friend Mohammed Ciise came to visit me at home in Djibo, Burkina Faso, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. His face was grave.
‘A time of violence is coming,’ he said. ‘Many of my people in Mali will flee Timbuktu and come to stay with my family here in Djibo.’
‘Many of my people’ turned out to be an understatement. Over the course of the following weeks, Mohammad’s hospitality was tested beyond breaking point by the arrival of fifteen thousand Tuareg refugees on overloaded lorries and bush-taxis. The women and children set up their makeshift tents and prepared themselves for a long stay. The men returned to Timbuktu to fight the Malian army.
This was not the first time that Tuareg rebels had taken up arms in the name of independence, but the difference in 2012 was their ill-judged alliance with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) and other militant jihadi groups. Within a week they had invaded and captured Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three most strategic desert towns in Mali. As soon as the jihadis were in control of these towns, they betrayed their Tuareg brothers in arms and forced them to leave.
The invaders imposed a harsh form of sharia law on the townspeople of Timbuktu, not unlike what we are seeing in parts of Syria and Iraq today. Music, dancing and football were banned. The full veil was enforced for girls over the age of ten. Men and women were forbidden from talking in public. Famous shrines to the medieval holymen of Timbuktu were destroyed in iconoclastic fervour.
Across the border in Burkina Faso, my Muslim friends and neighbours shook their heads in dismay. ‘Those AQIM fighters are not fit to call themselves Muslims,’ they muttered. ‘A thug who prays five times a day is still a thug.’
‘They are not thugs,’ piped up a young Qur’anic student sitting in the marketplace. ‘They are good people, applying God’s law to the letter. In the name of God, hear this: I hope they come here and do the same in Djibo.’ On hearing this, a small group of bystanders turned on the hapless student and beat him soundly for hoping such a thing. ‘Islam is not a violent religion,’ they told him.
During thirteen years of living amongst Fulani Muslims in Burkina Faso, I saw hundreds of Osama bin Laden T-shirts, but very few of the wearers were actually in favour of waging war on infidels. My family were welcomed warmly and we made close friends. We attended naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. I spent many hours sitting on grass mats with Muslim religious teachers, finding acres of common ground as well as expected points of difference.
I did meet a few jihadi sympathizers. They were usually ‘garibous’, teenage boys who had been sent far away from home to study with a Muslim religious teacher. These lads spent their days collecting firewood, making ink, and begging door-to-door for food. They spent their nights writing and reciting Qur’anic verses around a roaring fire.
I remember talking one afternoon with Mustafa, Ali, Boureima and Adama, four garibous from the far north-east of Burkina Faso. They were warm, good-humoured lads, whose conversation ranged from goat-herding to religion to the fortunes of Real Madrid. But one afternoon, when the conversation turned to the subject of 9/11, these good-hearted boys were oddly jubilant. ‘Praise be to God for the victory of our brothers,’ cried Ali. ‘Did you see the towers fall? It was glorious.’
Ali and his friends had swallowed a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative, which in their eyes was entirely compatible with the Book they had been memorizing.
I protested, of course, and tried to make my brothers see sense. I encouraged them to imagine what that day was like for the families of those who died, including the families of the hijackers. Imagination is a powerful tool. Within five minutes Ali declared fervently that the killing of innocent civilians in the Twin Towers was every bit as inglorious as the killing of innocent civilians in US drone attacks.
I do not imagine that the task of deradicalisation is always so easy. I doubt I would have lasted long in Al-Qaeda occupied Timbuktu. But in the case of Ali and his friends, it helped that I spoke their language and that I had spent many hours in their company, drinking gunpowder tea and herding pygmy goats with them. It also helped that I knew their families and that I spoke from a vantage-point of faith myself.
My recent book BLOOD & INK is set in occupied Timbuktu and is narrated from two alternating viewpoints. Ali is a shepherd boy who has become addicted to the adventure of jihad. Kadija is a daughter of Timbuktu who loves singing and dancing, even though such things are outlawed by the radical new regime. The novel charts their relationship from straightforward enmity to something approaching love.
Authors of YA are not known for shying away from controversial themes. Today, with young people in Britain facing real risk of radicalisation, we need more and better YA books about the battle for the soul of Islam. We need books that will subvert the Clash of Civilizations narrative and replace it with a more nuanced understanding, maybe even hope. Imagination is a powerful tool.