A medieval Sufi tomb, destroyed by the terrorists.
I’ve posted about the Timbuktu situation before. Can’t say I’ve been following it super closely, but, best as I understand, beginning last April, Islamist fundamentalist rebels & Tuareg separatists took over most of the territory of the country of Mali, and, until they were routed by French & Malian government forces last week, set themselves (in part) to destroying World Heritage Sites they felt were idolatrous or otherwise sacrilegious.
They have already destroyed a number of medieval tombs of Sufi saints, showing an astounding lack of respect for their own history, their own culture, their own religion, and an incredible failure to care how this makes them, Africa, and Islam appear to the rest of the world, encouraging rather than combatting negative stereotypes of Africa and Islam both as anti-intellectual, as primitive, violent, and all-around uncultured and uncivilized.
Last week, the terrorists went one step further. Timbuktu is not only the home of great sub-Saharan architecture, and sites of great religious importance, but it is also the home of one of the greatest collections of Islamic manuscripts – medieval manuscripts that represent some of the greatest examples of the flourishing high culture, science, philosophy, of the Islamic world prior to the era of European imperialism. Last week, the rebels torched one of the central libraries, and for a terrifying, dramatically saddening moment, it was thought all was lost. Now, some sources, including the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project itself are reporting, to the contrary, that librarians and curators in fact evacuated the vast majority of these treasures in anticipation of the rebel attack. Of course, we are not being told how or where the documents are now being hidden away, but museum directors and private collectors assure us that “the manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them.”
(Video courtesy of blog 333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat.)
The actions and attitudes of these militants are unbelievable to me. To destroy your own culture, your own history, one of the greatest shining examples that Africa was not backwards, was not primitive, but was full of vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the highest order, long before European involvement, seems counter-productive and self-destructive to say the least. And that, of course, is putting it mildly. In an opinion/editorial piece on CNN.com, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, discusses these issues and their import in far more eloquent and to-the-point terms, writing, “The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”
I do not know much about the specifics of the circumstances on the ground there in Mali today; the timeline on Wikipedia seems to indicate that the French and Malian government forces are in the process of retaking territory even as I write this. Hopefully they will have little difficulty completing this task and restoring government control, and order. However, in my amateur opinion, I would not be surprised if rooting out and eliminating these fundamentalist, and dreadfully destructive and violent elements from the region may prove impossible. This is most likely not something that can be changed with warfare, or by outside foreign intervention. All the UN condemnations in the world won’t stop these people. The only thing that can stop them, I wager, is for Muslims around the world – and most especially within these Northern African communities – to gather together and denounce these attitudes, to work within their communities to change minds, to change attitudes, and to eliminate this disgusting, repulsive virus that threatens to destroy Islam’s greatest historical and cultural treasures.
Some reports quote Malian locals as saying they need the French forces to stay, in order to continue to protect them from the rebels, but other reports are indicating that the French are looking to get out of Mali as soon as possible, in order to avoid the sort of quagmire the US continues to find itself in in Afghanistan. Hopefully, all involved will do what is right, and the horrors of the last eight months or so will not be repeated.