French destroyer Latouche-Treville
Nathalie Guibert

GULF OF GUINEA - In the dark of night, dozens of oil wells are spitting orange flames. They are the only things to be seen on this jet-black sea. This area south of Nigeria is one of the largest offshore oil fields in the world.

There are no lights on the deck of the Latouche-Treville either. The French frigate is silently patrolling the ocean. On this June night, in the deep waters off Port Harcourt, the battleship is patrolling a 200 square kilometers area. The area is rigged with traps: abandoned derricks, secondary platforms, primary platforms and pipelines binding them together like a spider web, over thousands of kilometers. On the navy maps, the wells of French oil company Total look like big coins.

The Latouche-Treville is engaged in “informal conversations” with the French companies in this area but the frigate wants to be able to patrol without having to report to anyone. It doesn’t answer the calls of foreigners asking for identification. “It’s the law of the jungle, here,” says the officer of the watch. The oilrigs are violating international laws by drawing a 20-kilometer (instead of the authorized 500-meter) security perimeter around their platforms, which is guarded by private military companies. “The guards are very nervous. Insecurity is very high,” says the officer.

In these warm waters where Africa’s wealth transits, ghosts are prowling: mercenaries in armored speedboats, navigating with their lights off; pirate boats with their identification devices turned off; illegal fishermen; oil, weapons, drugs and human traffickers. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), off the coast of West Africa, 966 seafarers were attacked by pirates in 2012 – over 200 of them were taken hostage. There have been 70 attacks since early 2013 in the Gulf.

On June 13, oil tanker MT Adour was attacked off the coast of Togo and taken to Nigerian waters. The assailants – a dozen men with Kalashnikovs – were not able to siphon the oil tanks, which were empty. They settled for the fuel the boat was using, but also took the captain hostage, along with his second in command. He was released as soon as the boat reached land, but his colleague was only freed on June 18, in Nigeria, while the Latouche-Treville was escorting the tanker.

The Gulf of Guinea is one of France’s defense priorities. The country has a constant operational presence in the Gulf of Guinea – the “Corymbe” mission. For the first time since early April, an anti-submarine frigate is at the forefront of this surveillance mission. When it was launched in 1990, Corymbe was only meant to provide punctual assistance to ground forces. But since 1996, the region has become increasingly dangerous and the French navy has been patrolling it full time, with the help of an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft based in Dakar, Senegal.

Although the French ministry of defense wouldn’t present it this way: the frigate is in fact the fourth French base in Africa, along with Dakar, Libreville in Gabon and Djibouti. There are major French interests in the region to protect: there are as many as 1,500 companies and 90,000 French nationals in the western sub-Saharan area. Most of them are in the coastal cities of the Gulf of Guinea, says Mathieu Le Hunsec, author of a book on the French navy presence in Africa. This is where a quarter of France’s oil supply comes from.

The region’s ports also support bases for military operations in the Sahel. The port of Cotonou in Benin is where the uranium extracted by French nuclear giant Areva in Niger leaves from. The port of Douala, Cameroon, is where all the logistics of France’s military presence in the Central African Republic leave from. The port of Dakar in Senegal, is the support base for the French military operations in Mali.

Pirates, mafias, and rebel militias

Intelligence, military cooperation with neighboring countries... – the mission covers a very large maritime perimeter from Senegal to Congo. “Our goal is to keep the violence down to a level where it can be – more or less – kept under control. We don’t want to the situation to deteriorate without us being aware of it,” sums up Latouche-Treville Commander Xavier de Vericourt. In case of a crisis, it is the Corymbe frigate that will evacuate French nationals from the region. The Latouche-Treville also carries the equipment for a naval commando squad – the special forces of the French navy – that can be dropped off at sea if need be. Elections are a good indicator of the regional stability for the Corymbe staff. They are currently looking very closely at the situation in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Piracy, which is spreading all the way up to the Ivory Coast, is becoming more and more violent. The pirates have changed their methods: they have gone from being economic predators to taking hostages. A recent example is the June 4 attack against the Bourbon Arethuse, an offshore tug supply vessel. “The pirates were looking for expats,” says Commander Vericourt. There were two 20-meter long speedboats with a dozen of very organized armed men in “uniforms” on board – the assailants opened fire to take control of the ship. Luckily, the expats had had enough time to barricade themselves in a safe room.

The Nigerian sailors who didn’t have time to barricade themselves were left unharmed. With nothing to plunder, the pirates left, and found two other ships to attack: the C-Viking and the Miss-Kayla. The frigate located the two pirate speedboats 5 kilometers away, drifting with their lights off.

A “voluntary naval control” has been established in the Gulf of Guinea, led by the French navy in Brest, France. The Corymbe frigate advises the other French ships or the boats “of interest” if they signal their presence. The militarization of the area seems unavoidable. “If there are no controls or no presence in the area, people will take over the region,” says Commander Vericourt.

Since 2006, the U.S. naval forces has been involved in supporting local militaries, coast guards and mariners under its African Partnership Station initiative to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. The U.S. has provided patrol boats to every country in the region. France is undertaking similar actions in Equatorial Guinea where it has opened a naval academy. With the help of other partner countries such as Israel, China and Russia, the coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea are trying to build their own navy.

It’s only recently that these countries became aware of the necessity to do so. In February 2009, Equatorial Guinea’s presidential palace in its capital city Malabo, located off the coast of Cameroon on Bioko Island, was attacked from the sea. Other such attacks have targeted banks in Cameroon or supermarkets in Port-Gentil, Gabon as well. They were orchestrated by pirates, mafias and rebel militias.

Senegal, Liberia, Cape Verde, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Ghana… The Latouche-Treville has seen around 15 ports in the first four months of its mission.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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