Cliff May
The name Timbuktu has come to evoke the most remote, mysterious, and inaccessible corner of the earth. Five hundred years ago, Timbuktu was a great center of Islamic scholarship and the southern terminus of the principal trans-Saharan route to the western Mediterranean, a cosmopolitan outpost where camel caravans brought buyers and sellers of salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.

As for contemporary Timbuktu, it is an impoverished provincial capital in the West African nation of Mali — a dateline seldom seen on the front pages. But a little news was made there in April when rebel forces, including members of Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist and revolutionary Islamic group, came and conquered.

Ansar Dine’s leaders immediately announced the imposition of their interpretation of sharia law, including mandatory veiling of women, a ban on music, the closing of non-religious schools, and hudud punishments — amputations for thieves and stoning for adulterers, for example. Next, they began to destroy Timbuktu’s religious sites, including the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque and the 14th-century Djinguereber mosque — even though these sites were Muslim.

By now, it is apparent to all but the determinedly deluded — a club never short of members — that those who call themselves Islamists and jihadis range from intolerant to bellicose and regard Jews, Christians, Hindus, the Baha’, and other “infidels” as both inferiors and enemies with whom reconciliation is unthinkable. Destroying their religious symbols is seen as a pious act.

This is why, in March of 2001, the Taliban dynamited the sixth-century stone Buddhas of Bamiyan. It mattered not at all that the Buddhists of Bamiyan and surrounding regions had been converted or killed ages ago. To the Taliban’s political and religious leaders the statues were “un-Islamic,” and there could be no justification for their preservation. Today in Egypt, some clerics are already discussing the demolition of the pyramids. Muslim Brotherhood leaders are among those not expressing outrage.

Again, this is widely understood. What isn’t: Islamic-fundamentalist revolutionaries despise with no less vehemence Muslims whose reading of Islam differs from theirs. Timbuktu has been a center of Sufi Islam. The most revered religious figures in Sufism are regarded as saints; some have been laid to rest in Timbuktu’s tombs and mausoleums. To members of Ansar Dine, “Defenders of Faith,” this is heresy.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.