No Safety in Timbuktu
Jul 18, 2012 -
“From here to Timbuktu.” The phrase conjures up images of a distant, almost mystical place. But it’s a real place, struggling with real threats.
Timbuktu, Mali was once known for trade in gold, salt, and spices, which passed through the city heading north across the Sahara. It has been a center of religious mysticism. Its mosques and mausoleums have been named world historical sites. Its tombs of Muslim saints and warriors date to the 15th century and its libraries hold 700,000 ancient manuscripts.
But this legacy is being attacked. A few months ago, the country of Mali basically collapsed after a coup – and a radical Islamist movement claimed significant territory. In recent weeks, many ancient Muslim sites have been destroyed by Ansar Dine – or “Defenders of Faith.”
The other day, these vandals pick axed to the door of the Sidi Yahia mosque, named for one of the first imams of Timbuktu. According to local lore, the sealed door would not open until the last day of the world. These extremists despise icons, which they say worshippers hold above god. They prefer black and austere.
The attacks are indiscriminate. Christian churches in Egypt and elsewhere have been hit by Ansar Dine's spiritual brethren. But according to a recent Reuters report, “[Islamists] most frequent targets have been mosques and shrines of other Muslims loyal to a version of Islam less puritanical than their own.” In recent years, there have been attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan. Salafi groups have destroyed shines in Egypt. In Libya, militants dug up Sufi saints’ graves, tossing the remains in a landfill.
The vast area of northern Mali gives these militants space to operate. Weapons flowing out of nearby Libya make them lethal. And the drug trade from South America through West Africa to Europe could provide a rich revenue stream. This zealotry is dangerous.