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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - July 5, 2012

Timbuktu was once known as Cairo’s African daughter – an ancient city whose mosques and mausoleums testify to its role as a centre of Islamic learning and art. These have stood for hundreds of years on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert at the crossroads between Africa, Europe and the Arab world. This week al-Qaeda-linked Islamists smashed through walls of clay as thick in parts as two metres with pickaxes and shovels to destroy a rich legacy.

The rape of Timbuktu by extremists who view its tombs as idolatrous Sufi shrines is reminiscent of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. It is taking place in the name of a virulent form of Islam alien to Mali and alien to all but a tiny minority of African Muslims.

The continent is in shock. Few architectural landmarks have survived the ravages of conflict, colonialism and climate in sub-Saharan Africa for as long as Timbuktu’s. Few monuments so forcefully put the lie to notions dating back to colonial times, but surviving in ignorant minds today, that history in Africa began only when Europeans brought with them “progress.” For their cultural and historic significance alone, no effort should be spared in saving what remains of Timbuktu’s artefacts and architecture, and rescuing the libraries that date back to the 16th century.

The wanton destruction by these Islamist brigands should serve as an urgent reminder of the dangers posed by the extremist takeover of northern Mali to its inhabitants, to the rest of west Africa and to the continent’s traditionally tolerant forms of Islam.

The rebellion in the north of Mali was partly prompted by fallout from the ousting of Muammer Gaddafi, and failure on the part of western allies to pre-empt the flow of weapons, Tuareg fighters and extremists to Libya’s south. Britain, France and the US all have a debt of responsibility to help clean up the mess.

As the UN Security Council has dithered over whether to sanction a regional military intervention to retake Mali’s captured north, extremists linked to al-Qaeda have been consolidating their control. The resulting conflict is now a magnet for extremists from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This week’s events underscore the need for military action to arrest this momentum. The destruction of the mosques should also serve as a clarion call to actors such as Qatar and the wider Muslim world, whose support is needed to protect its rich heritage. Any intervention must be calibrated to ensure Mali does not become a front for global jihadists, or a rallying cry for Tuareg separatists across the region.

Timbuktu rose up at the end of the camel routes where gold and slaves were once traded for salt. Today it is the trade in drugs and kidnap victims that is providing the financial wherewithal of the extremists who control it. Yesterday’s rulers left behind books and art. Today’s will leave nothing but destruction in their wake.



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