Saturday, July 7, 2012

Timbuktu... sacred site, threatened by secular ignorance.


Poised upon the southern edge of the Sahara desert, the ancient oasis and settlement Timbuktu was once a crossroads of the African continent and the Muslim world. Once the heart of trans-Saharan commerce and trade, spirituality and mysticism, knowledge and learning, Timbuktu is now being desecrated. Ironically, since the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the “city of 32 Sufi Saints” has been reduced to collateral damage in a brutal Islamist sect’s push for power in northern Mali.

For the last twenty three years, Mali has struggled with maintaining a stable democracy. Last year, triggered by the rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi in neighboring Libya, ethnic Tuareg fighters streamed into the country with an arsenal of weaponry declaring their own republic in the region that includes the ancient city. This uprising is a serious threat to Mali and the entire Maghreb region. Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist sect with alliances al-Qaeda, has established itself in the rebel-held territory. They have consequently imposed sharia law and begun to wreak sectarian havoc.

As a result, Timbuktu is at the mercy of political and sectarian chaos, witnessing the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites.

This senseless destruction of the archeologically priceless center of Sufi mysticism is equally horrific as the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Never the less, the leadership of Ansar Dine, has overseen the destruction of at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on July 2nd, 2012, the door of one of the city’s most sacred, the Sidi Yahya mosque.

Local mythology indicates that the doors of the Sidi Yahya mosque… bludgeoned open on the 2nd… will open only on the world’s last day. So far, the arrival of Ansar Dine in northern Mali, and its destructive wake in Timbuktu, has sadly validated the eschatological prophecy. Extremists are destroying an African democracy, even as men with pickaxes hack away at Earth’s irreplaceable global heritage.

Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism and a symbol of spiritual tolerance is somehow a threat to Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. “The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah,” said Ansar Dine spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha.

“The destruction is a divine order,” he said. “It’s our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God.”

When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course... What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”

On July 5th, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that threatened sanctions on rebel fighters in northern Mali and decried the vandalism of cultural sites. But as worthy as this resolution is, it’s unlikely to end the destruction; the prospect of international intervention of any kind remains unlikely. In the meantime, the desecration of Timbuktu continues…

This crime against humanity is merely the latest example of horrific atrocity imposed upon Humanity’s artifacts of spiritualism, learning and cultural tolerance. Just as in the destruction of the library of Alexandria… the Spanish Inquisition… the “burning of the books” by the Nazis… these acts of violence share a dark heritage. Once again, the forces of darkness and ignorance attack the bearers of knowledge and light.

Remember this: A room in darkness can be illuminated by a spark of light… but a room in the light, cannot be extinguished by a spark of darkness.

“One way or another… this darkness has got to give.”

-Robert Hunter

Information gleaned from articles in the Washington Post.