Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Gary Wilder

Committee Members

Vincent Crapanzano

Michael Gomez

Mandana Limbert

Jonathan Shannon

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Crisis, Displacement, Refugees, Religion, the State, Africa


In Spring 2012, a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg nationalist and Jihadi-Salafist militant groups occupied Mali’s northern regions, forcibly displacing nearly 300,000 residents and ultimately imposing their harsh interpretation of shari’a among those who remained. Later, in January 2013, as these groups began marching towards southern Mali, the French army suddenly intervened, “liberating” urban centers in the North as the militants fled into the Sahara Desert and across the Algerian border. My research examines this period of occupation, displacement and intervention, which most Malians have come to term “the crisis.” Specifically, I analyze the cultural and religious frameworks through which IDPs and refugees from Timbuktu conceptualized and negotiated broader, transnational structures including militant groups, national and foreign armies, refugee camps, humanitarian agencies and so on. As a semi-autonomous hub of Islamic learning that has remained politically and economically distant from the administrative centers of multiple polities over the centuries, I find that Timbuktu reproduces a simultaneously peripheral and central positionality among my interlocutors. Their dissonant, co-lived subjectivity has influenced both how displaced Timbuktians have made sense of (being in) crisis, as well as the creative strategies that they have attempted in order to minimize hardships. By way of example, one of the primary religio-cultural knowledge-practices that many displaced Timbuktians expressed throughout the occupation was an ethic of privacy rooted in intersecting globalized and localized understandings of secrecy, modesty and shame. Articulated in social and metaphysical spheres, this ethic of privacy both exacerbated the difficulties that many Timbuktians faced and provided a framework through which they attempted to address them. Indeed, my interlocutors referenced this and other knowledge-practices when organizing self-help groups and commenting upon the socio-political landscape surrounding the crisis. Timbuktian IDPs and refugees’ perceptions of occupation, displacement and intervention, along with the actions that they took in order to better their circumstances, reveal the need to analyze crises beyond certain hegemonic, Euro-American optics. Taking localized knowledge seriously decenters and decolonizes the presumptions that many theorists, humanitarians and politicians have reproduced and more effectively repositions displaced persons as active, strategic agents.