So what is a Tuareg? If you are like most of the world you might know Tuareg as a brand of SUV put out by Volkswagon. If you are a jewelry aficionado you might have seen or purchased some of their intricate silver and stone designs which are currently very much in vogue. If you are a world music lover you may listen to Tuareg musicians like Bambino, who performed last week in Portsmith, NH and before that in Paris and elsewhere, or the group Tinariwen who are something of an international sensation and have performed with groups like Carlos Santa and TV On the Radio. If you are a French nuclear power plant operator you may know the Tuaregs as the people inconveniently living in the outback of Niger where France gets a great deal of its uranium from. If you are a Libyan you may know Tuaregs as mercenaries fighting on both sides of the recent rebellion. If you ever wondered where Timbuktu is, it’s right in the Tuareg catchment inside Mali and it is now part of the nascent Republic of Azawad which was declared last week by the political wing of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
In short, Tuaregs are not very well known but here are a few facts about them. They are a non-Arabic nomadic Berber pastoralist tribespeople spread out across at least six African countries. For the most part they practice a very specific, non-fundamentalist form of Islam that allows a great deal of freedom for women and they have absolutely nothing in common with the folks at Al-Qaeda or any other Islamic sect intent on imposing their views on others. In the Malian conflict certain radical Islamic groups have sought to undermine or even co-opt Tuareg leadership and this has led to confusion and an inaccurate pairing of Tuareg political goals and radical Islamic jihad fantasies.
Most westerners are probably unaware that the Tuaregs have been fighting low-level insurgencies in Niger and Mali for the past several decades and the events in Mali are a culmination of a long process of attempted negotiation, broken promises and attempts by successive regimes in Mali and Niger to smash Taureg resistance. Like the Kurds in the Middle East the Tuaregs have been marginalized and in some cases oppressed in each of the countries where they live and the attempt to establish an independent country for themselves in Mali should not necessarily be dismissed as either quixotic or without justifiable reasoning.