Yes, there really is a place called Timbuktu. It is a city at the center of the Mali Empire in West Africa and from the 12th to 16th centuries was a major trading center between the Arabian Caliphate and Equatorial Africa. Salt, gold, ivory and slaves passed through the city gates of Timbuktu. In 1591, it was conquered by Morocco, but by that time, it was already fading from importance. The French ruled it from 1893 to 1960, when Mali was restored as an independent nation.
As a trading center, it attracted Islamic scholars, who flourished wherever there was a flow of people and ideas. The Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university was established there and it gave rise to an intellectual, aesthetic branch of Islam called Sufi. Many of the founders of Sufi were buried there, venerated as saints.
On April 1, the city fell to the Tuareg tribal rebels of the MNLA and Ansar Dine, an affiliate of al Qaida in the manner of the Taliban. And like the Taliban, the Ansar Dine do not tolerate any symbols of any faith but their own. As the Taliban destroyed ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, the Ansar Dine have been destroying the tombs of the Sufi saints.
The Ansar Dine have explained that it is against their religion to build over the graves of the dead, which is at odds with the practices of the Sufi, who built mausoleums for their saints. It is also at odds with the tomb the Afghans built for their national hero and martyr Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaida in 2001. The idea of not building tombs or mausoleums seems unique to whatever narrow definition of Islam is practiced by the Ansar Dine. There have been two attacks on the Sufi cemetery in two days, both times involving up to 30 members of Ansar Dine armed with Russian Kalashnikovs and pick-axes. They are planning to destroy all 16 Sufi mausoleum sites in Timbuktu, sites that have been designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations. Sufi shrines have also been attacked by Salafists in Egypt and Libya.
Timbuktu journalist Yaya Tandina told Reuters that the town’s residents did not resist the attackers, and they hope to rebuild the sites later. That was probably a wise choice, rather than have bloodshed over these buildings. UNESCO has called for a halt to the destruction.
Oumer Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Ansar Dine told Reuters that “We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion.” What is ordained in Islam is Muslims not engaging in grave worship. The Ansar Dine are assuming a practice among the residents of Timbuktu and are not interested in differentiating between honoring the saints and worshiping the graves.
The Salafis in Egypt and Libya, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaida everywhere are determined to impose the very strictest fundamentalist Islam on all Muslims and conquer the planet in the name of Allah. We have come to think of al Qaida as terrorists targeting the West because of our “lifestyles” and because we are “infidels” (a really bad translation of an Arabic word that actually means ‘pagan’) but these people are terrorizing other Muslims just as much if not more than they are terrorizing the West. The are even to right of the Saudi Wahabists, who control all aspects of Saudi life in accordance with their medieval version of Sharia. They are not only behind the taking of more than half the nation of Mali, they are seriously impeding the transitions from the despotic regimes of Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and are in their own way, responsible for a lack of support for the rebels in Syria among an educated middle class who know they want political reform, but fear the coming of the extremists in any vacuum created by the ejection of Bashar al Assad.