SIDI YEHIA MOSQUE IN MALI (MIKE RETTIG)

From Here to Timbuktu

Recent events in Mali illustrate how ideological radicals attempt to disassemble a cultural identity step by step, first through objects and then beliefs. 

The first introduction that most Westerners had to the Taliban in 2001 was likely not on September 11 – far more likely it was via a short news blip six months earlier when they destroyed renowned cultural relics in the Afghan valley of Bamyan using poorly positioned dynamite after tank artillery fire failed to make the statues fall.  The vision of the Buddhas of Bamyan crumbling to the valley floor at the hands of the Taliban was a foreshadowing of the crippled Twin Towers collapsing onto themselves.  Despite the tragic loss of life on 9/11, it was the 6th century sentinels that were the first high profile casualties of the Islamic extremists. The relics had stood over the valley for 1,500 years and extremists would shortly thereafter take down even larger symbols of cultural identity.

A decade later and 4,500 miles away that same brand of iconoclastic religious extremism has now destroyed dozens of revered elements of the cultural landscape in Timbuktu. April saw armed combatants sweep into Timbuktu with declared intentions of creating a semi-autonomous government based on Sharia law in the north of Mali.  In the last few weeks the radical Ansar Dine group has taken their extreme views beyond controlling the behavior of the city’s inhabitants, and has attacked the city’s structures themselves.

Timbuktu has existed since the end of the 5th  century and has long been renowned as a center of Islamic learning.  As the city’s reputation grew, it attracted scholars and imams who came to be revered as saints to the Sufi Muslims who inhabited the city.  Their tombs became shrines that were cared for by Timbuktu’s inhabitants for generations.  This, unfortunately, was believed to be sacrilegious worship of false idols that the Ansar Dine believes must be destroyed.  The iconoclastic Ansar Dine consider the shrines of Timbuktu the way the Taliban viewed the Buddhas of Bamyan; as idolatrous remnants from the period of Jahiliyya, or the time before the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

Destroying Identities

When invaders sweep through a place and destroy the symbols that represent the identity of the people, they destroy a part of the community’s cohesiveness that naturally resists foreign incursion.  As the destruction of the Buddhas was an attempt to erase Bamyan’s importance as a historic center of Buddhist learning, the attack on the World Trade Center, and the commerce conducted therein, was an assault on Manhattan’s identity.  Knowing this, it has been a disservice of mass media that so little attention has been paid to the destruction and takeover of Mali’s UNESCO World Heritage Site aside from short interludes preceding commercials.  It is hard to imagine the first world standing by if a religious offshoot or rival initiated an attack on Vatican City, or if an emerging sociopolitical movement declared Stonehenge an anathema and called for its destruction (or more analogously to the destruction in Timbuktu, if another extremist group attacked the Taj Mahal because it is a mausoleum in remembrance of a human being – and a woman, at that).

Within the last week there have been disputed reports that a radical Islamist sheikh called for the destruction of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza.  Some have suggested the monuments have survived centuries of Muslim prevalence in Egypt only because radicals have lacked the resources to destroy them, and because of the vast amounts of tourism revenue that they generate.  Although this call for destruction may be hearsay, the mere possibility should be a call to action to defend the great symbols of human achievement.   It is also difficult to conceive that Egyptians would allow this to happen, when in the heat of conflict in Tahrir Square civilians and soldiers, Christians and Muslims alike, joined arms to surround the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in an attempt to protect the country’s proud national collection from looters. Similarly, in Mali the vast majority of citizens are moderates who are simply at risk of being overpowered by extremists by virtue of the simple inability of noncombatants to defend cultural treasures.

More than just Objects

In the grand scheme of life, things are just that – objects – and they will never equate with the value of a single human life.  However, these historically rich objects symbolize thousands of years of memories and shared experiences. With the destruction of these objects comes the elimination of a frame of reference and related value system that an entire community has tied itself to for generations.

Should the churches of Lalibela or the temples of Angkor Wat or the ruins of Machu Picchu share the fate of the Buddhas of Bamyan and the shrines of Timbuktu, the whole of humanity would suffer the loss.  These objects represent the collective accomplishments of mankind, and although many throughout the world do not even know of their existence, that does not make them any less significant for the families who have lived in their shadows for generations and the countries who proudly embrace their history.

A 13th century English statute made witnesses of a crime responsible for raising a “hue and cry” and assisting with the apprehension of the criminal – perhaps this was the first iteration of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that calls on bystanders to intervene on behalf of the prevention of mass atrocities.  Such atrocities are not only committed against individuals, but against whole populations.  But we live in a world of crimes, and there is only a hue and a cry about some of them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.