Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage

Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist militia, has set about destroying mausoleums and shrines in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu, which was once a great center of Islamic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries

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AFP / Getty Images

A video still showing Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu, Mali, on July 1, 2012

It was a singular, defining act of barbarism, beamed out live for the world to see. In March 2001, Taliban fighters and grandees clustered around the famed giant statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, laid explosives at their feet and blew them up. The extremists’ shadowy leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, lauded the destruction of the two towering 6th century monuments: “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”

Similar language and zeal was on air Monday when news emerged of an Islamist faction in Mali desecrating a number of tombs in the ancient city of Timbuktu, which in recent months fell under control of a separatist insurgency. “The destruction is a divine order,” said a spokesman from Ansar Dine, a radical outfit with alleged links to al-Qaeda. According to reports, the militants have set about tearing down centuries-old mausoleums of Muslim holy men in Timbuktu, a Saharan crossroads known in lore as “the city of 333 saints” and long a fabled destination for backpacking tourists. UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, says as many as half of the city’s shrines “have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism.”

(MORE: Mali’s Crisis: Terror Stalks the Treasures of Timbuktu)

In the puritanical strain of Islam adhered to by Ansar Dine (and the Taliban), veneration of Sufi saints counts as idolatry, a heretical practice that cannot be tolerated. Militants bearing guns, pickaxes and shovels reduced to rubble the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud, who died in 955 A.D. They have also knocked down tombs of two other prominent medieval saints, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya. One Ansar Dine spokesman told the BBC that they plan to destroy every single Sufi shrine in the city, “without exception.”

International outrage has been swift. UNESCO, which designates some of Timbuktu’s mosques and tombs as World Heritage sites, has desperately urged an end to the campaign of destruction. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deemed the acts “totally unjustified.” The International Criminal Court’s new chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, suggested they should be considered a war crime.

But beyond scolding the Islamists of the Sahel, there’s little anyone can do to stop this wretched bout of iconoclasm. History is littered with the debris of toppled temples and smashed idols. Salafists and others who believe in a more orthodox brand of Islam harbor a particular animosity toward Sufism, whose mystical interpretation of the divine affords a more heterodox faith, steeped sometimes in local pre-Islamic traditions and a reverence for saints and deceased wise men. Islam, as it spread outside the Arabian world, did so in large part through the peaceful teachings of Sufi orders and wandering mendicants — not just under the hooves of conquering Arab armies. Yet, recently, Sufi shrines have come under attack from emboldened and radicalized puritans in countries like Egypt and Libya; in Pakistan, the Taliban and its affiliates have waged a sectarian war on Sufis, systematically targeting dozens of tombs and Sufi sites, while killing hundreds of devotees.

(MORE: Can Sufism Defuse Radical Islam?)

The many holy places and old libraries of Timbuktu, once a prominent center of Islamic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries, were preserved for centuries as a result of the city’s remote location on the path of now collapsed salt- and gold-trade routes. Yet they have come under grave threat in the months that followed the victories of an ethnic-Tuareg insurgency in Mali’s north, buoyed by Islamist fighters like the Ansar Dine. The latter, given their single-minded devotion to the word of the Koran, care little for the juridical wisdom of generations of Timbuktu’s theologians who critically examined Islam’s founding holy text.

Says Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general:

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. It is an attack against the physical evidence that peace and dialogue is possible.

And prospects for peace and dialogue in Mali do look dim. A military coup earlier this year threw what was once one of West Africa’s most stable democracies into chaos: the rebellion in the north gained ground and effectively captured half the country but is itself now splintering on religious lines, with Salafist factions clashing with more secular elements. The coupmakers in the capital, Bamako, have faced their own turmoil. Neighboring countries are contemplating military intervention; hundreds of thousands of Malians have been forced to flee their homes as refugees, with fears growing of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

In Timbuktu, it appears the Islamists are running roughshod over a fearful, traumatized populace. A gang of Ansar Dine allegedly tore down one of the doors of the 15th century Sidi Yahya mosque. Tradition has it that that particular portal would only open on the last day of the world — a local superstition wrapped up in messianic fables that the Islamists wanted to prove hollow. But, with their historic city crumbling around them, the people of Timbuktu have every right to imagine a world ending.

MORE: Gaddafi’s Posthumous Gift to Mali: The Tuareg Seize Timbuktu

394 comments
dontforg
dontforg

@RichardDawkins Islam was born with the same "peace". Destroying the all other religions/cultures once it got a chance. And spread by blood.

debazden
debazden

@sumande disappointing - I was in Bamako for a week in 2011

khawachen
khawachen

@RichardDawkins Islamic terrorist destruction of scriptures of non Muslims is nothing new it began with Mohamed end Buddhism in South E Asia

paytriat
paytriat

@RichardDawkins In the Indian scenario, razing down Nalanda University outweighs all the cruelties of recorded history.@taslimanasreen

SirPsychoMMA
SirPsychoMMA

@RichardDawkins this angers me so much; why aren't more people reacting to this? I'm guessing it wasn't UNESCO protected or anything..

djinn_n_tonic
djinn_n_tonic

@RichardDawkins .. previously stood for centuries (and created by Muslims themselves). Why now and not in preceding centuries?

djinn_n_tonic
djinn_n_tonic

@RichardDawkins The convergence of politics and divine order sees the destruction of cultural and religious heritage that ...

beczs
beczs

@RichardDawkins didn't Henry VIII also order the destruction of texts that went against his religion?

Michael_Jongen
Michael_Jongen

@RichardDawkins @Eschertology how inane to judge a religion by its extremists

Eschertology
Eschertology

@RichardDawkins The same way the Jewish and Xtian churches destroyed all dissenting texts

xpsyclosarinx
xpsyclosarinx

@RichardDawkins I don't think I've ever been so angry with a religious group since WBC. But this is completely and utterly abhorrent!

SGde3a
SGde3a

@richarddawkins They're both following the destroyer not the creator, as long as they're on the destructive path.

snikt2k
snikt2k

@RichardDawkins Can't we just build a big ass dome around em & black them out of our modern maps or something? Cuz we can't kill them.

IDLERACER
IDLERACER

@RichardDawkins "Islamist" is not a real word. It did not exist even 10 years ago. These men are mentally & biologically inferior thugs.

SouthHumanist
SouthHumanist

@RichardDawkins so sad and so incredibly selfish. To destroy human history in the service of a personal fairy tale is pathetic.

white.elephant
white.elephant

Examine ALL words and follow the best if you possess intelligence. It take effort and time, you will have to set aside prejudice and ego. But if you take the care to search for the truth, you can keep improving. Self-improvement is something we can all agree we can benefit from.

 Quran 39:18 "They are the ones who examine all words, then follow the best. These are the ones whom GOD has guided; these are the ones who possess intelligence."

white.elephant
white.elephant

throughout history much killing and destruction has happened in the name of religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have their share of such attributions. It makes no sense to confuse the actions of violent, ignorant people with God's teachings. Clearly, those who burn down libraries have no interest in reading. Clearly, the so-called extreme islamists have never read the Quran.

ByggetBorgen
ByggetBorgen

@larsmannen Sjæl. Har gitt opp dialog-konseptet.

ThibaultLloyd
ThibaultLloyd

@RichardDawkins Muslims claim that Islam is the religion of peace. have they read their qur'an? I doubt it.

antibogon
antibogon

@RichardDawkins Religion cannot tolerate any extra-scriptural knowledge, and has no humor. See Slacktivist Fred Clark http://t.co/NRY67VDT

arrow_of_god
arrow_of_god

@RichardDawkins stop being petty minded stating religion=violence, your fellow non-theists have slaughtered their fair share through history

AztlanNewsTweet
AztlanNewsTweet

@RichardDawkins Why did the Christians destroy the Mayan and other indigenous manuscripts?

bassmasterwes
bassmasterwes

@RichardDawkins just like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, stupid people do stupid things.

MissClark_RE
MissClark_RE

@RichardDawkins Why the "great" Romans did the same? (I meant destroying a whole library ).Thanks to many Muslim scholars we know Aristotles

allenstenhaus
allenstenhaus

@RichardDawkins I am yet to see a major religion that is about peace. Many just claim peace and morality while destroying.

stevethompson49
stevethompson49

@RichardDawkins Anyone who thinks that Islam is the religion of peace needs to read the Koran for themselves.

StevenHorsfall
StevenHorsfall

@RichardDawkins @IvanLewis_MP has just been to africa with an evangelical group @WorldVision This is clearly seen as new zealot battleground

markoopasha
markoopasha

@RichardDawkins scientifically those structures aren't strong enough for an earthquake (Richter scale 7), they will rebuild them dude.

MichaelSWithers
MichaelSWithers

@RichardDawkins And the evidence for this ludicrous claim is......

SentientApe
SentientApe

@RichardDawkins I think you meant "the religion of piece"...

HypothesizeThis
HypothesizeThis

@RichardDawkins UK and France need public support for their move. I don't this is the truth. Think the bigger pic - wars are for resources

indysahota
indysahota

@RichardDawkins Ironic that the people of the 600 year old tombs they destroyed were more progressively minded. A sad day for Islam.

thirteendonkeys
thirteendonkeys

@RichardDawkins Why is god or Allah if you like, so threatened by old manuscripts, shrines and statues! Why so insecure?

lordnoelwyatt
lordnoelwyatt

@RichardDawkins religion and peace have never been synonymous with each other.

Jacobinian1917
Jacobinian1917

.@RichardDawkins Sir, Saudia, the biggest ally of the USA in the Muslim world, has reduced the Muslims to sub-human, destructive maniacs.

serbestkalem
serbestkalem

@RichardDawkins All ancient shrine must be destroyed except "Kaaba". Because that is their shrine. Allah is the holly destroyer!

thirteendonkeys
thirteendonkeys

@RichardDawkins Jesus said! Forgive them they know not what they do. Religion had been getting it wrong for a long time!

Gtwy
Gtwy

@RichardDawkins this is very sad

Jessie_Maelynn
Jessie_Maelynn

@RichardDawkins I'd say pretty much all religions are peaceful in theory. It's the people... The people are the ones who pervert it.

adamcaudill
adamcaudill

@RichardDawkins I don't think I've seen a truly peaceful religion. Makes me sick to see such pointless destruction.

RabidAntitheist
RabidAntitheist

@RichardDawkins there is no such thing as a religion of peace. All of them have violent histories.

_ade
_ade

@RichardDawkins Tiresome that we must share the Earth with such malfunctioning individuals.

Jamieboyt95
Jamieboyt95

@RichardDawkins I thought 'Why did the Islamists destroy the Timbuktu manuscripts?' Was the first line of a joke.