Cliff May

A reporter asked a member of Ansar Dine if the destruction of Muslim religious sites in Timbuktu would continue. “Of course,” he replied. “What doesn’t correspond to Islam we are going to correct.” A retired Timbuktu tour guide told another reporter: “They say they’re going to destroy it all, and what we don’t know is when.” In neighboring Niger, a refugee who had sold food in the market said the Islamists had prevented her from working. “I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know.”

Precisely. Islamism comes in a variety of forms, but it is always and everywhere a theological and cultural bulldozer. How ironic that those who claim the most fervid commitment to diversity are often the first to rise to Islamism’s defense.

Ansar Dine’s reading of Islam is close to that of al-Qaeda, which, in turn, springs from Wahhabism. A small and obscure desert sect just a century ago, Wahhabism has since spread globally thanks to the West’s willingness to pay handsomely for the oil that Saudi warriors seized by force of arms from other Arabian tribes and clans. Across the Gulf, Iran has been dominated for more than 30 years by a regime that promotes a rival theology/ideology. Based on Shia rather than Sunni Islam, it is no less fundamentalist, supremacist, and intolerant.

Mali is not the only country in Africa under attack. When I was an Africa correspondent for the
New York Times in the 1980s, I often visited Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country. Its north is predominantly Muslim, the south mainly Christian. For generations, the two groups enjoyed a reasonable modus vivendi. I actually felt safer in the Muslim north. In such southern cities as Lagos, violent crime was rampant.

Over time, however, a growing number of Nigerian Muslims have been indoctrinated and radicalized — Wahhabized. Earlier this month, Islamist gunmen, reportedly numbering in the hundreds, killed more than 60 Christians in and around the city of Jos in central Plateau State, while displacing hundreds more by setting fire to their homes. Then, at a funeral for the victims, gunmen attacked again, killing more.

Responsibility for the carnage has been claimed by Boko Haram, a sect whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” Blamed for more than 1,000 killings over the last two years, Boko Haram is strongly suspected of having close ties with two Africa-based branches of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Shabab, which is in Somalia.

Recently, a new Islamic group announced its existence: Jama’atu Ansarul Musilimina fi Biladin Sudan (Supporters of Islam in the Land of Sudan), which is dedicated to fighting “any group or religion that attacks Islam and Muslims.” Its emir, Abu Usamatul Ansar, has accused the Nigerian government, currently headed by a Christian, of “massacring” Muslims.

“There is always something new out of Africa,” the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder observed more than 2,000 years ago. What’s new now, however, is what is going into Africa — thugs and menacing strains of Islamic extremism. No good can come out of that.

Cliff May

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