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Editorial: Mali Islamist militants destroying the Golden Age of Timbuktu

By Editorial Board
On February 11, 2013

  • Students work their biceps scooping ice cream from one of the 75 three-gallon tubs at Friday's One-Ton Sundae event. Caitlin Orban

It's ironic that in a persistent quest of declaring the greatness of their religion and civilization, Islamist militants in Mali are doing their best to destroy everything that made it great to begin with.
The Malian effort at declaring a native Tuareg nation-state in the northern (almost entirely desert) portion of the country is a fairly typical casus belli in the geopolitical arena. It is also fairly typical in any country with a majority Muslim population, when a radical group fails to achieve its goal through secular means, they resort to religious extremes. As the Malian military pressed against separatist forces in the northern half of the country, the Tuareg leaders became superseded by Islamist powers, which soon came to control the conflict.
Islamist leaders, as we in America should be familiar with by now, want to replace all forms of secular law with Islamic sharia law. Sharia law (despite the implication that it is a set standard of legal code) takes on different forms. For example, some groups, like Ansar Dine in Mali, use certain Islamic traditions as part of sharia. One of the traditions they seek to uphold is the destruction of all forms of idolatry.
Timbuktu, contrary to popular phraseology, is an actual city. It's a historic place in Mali that was once a powerful center of Islamic civilization when Europe was still locked in the Dark Ages. Many Sufi saints (a vehemently peaceful sect of Islam) are buried in Timbuktu, only to have their tombs, which were once protected UNESCO World Heritage sites, leveled to the ground with mining tools and AK-47s.
This is where the Timbuktu Manuscripts come in. As Timbuktu was a great center of civilization at the end of the world in the Medieval period, a lot of Islamic scholars came to study there. They left literally hundreds of thousands of documents on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and religion that have remained largely in the hands of private families. Most of the manuscripts have survived as heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. In the early part of the century, about 160 were digitized in the "Tombouctou Manuscript Projects." In contrast, 700 were destroyed in a single flooded household.
As the French military, deciding to intervene in the conflict now to try and stem the loss of life, entered Timbuktu, the Islamic militants left the city, setting fire to much of it as they left. While many of the documents were destroyed and many people died, it is worth at least a moment to appreciate the debt history owes to the French Operation Serval. We hope for a speedy end to the conflict, but as academics, we should be thankful that the Golden Age of Timbuktu, which Ansar Dine seems so intent on destroying, is not completely erased yet.  


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