Telling the story of Timbuktu’s terror

The New York Times has done some amazing work this week covering Islamic conflicts in Africa. This story, which tells how sharia was implemented during Islamist domination of Timbuktu, is so very good. Note the beginning:

When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked — treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.

Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. Put together a team, they said, bring an ambulance and come to a sun-baked public square by sand dunes.

There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand. As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr. Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away.

“I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”

This piece is riveting and so very descriptive. It shows how Muslims dealt with Islamist fighters linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, they are still a threat — and the story deals somewhat with that.

The damage done to Timbuktu, according the story, is severe. Many residents fled. The city is dangerously isolated. I love the attention to religious detail in this story. For instance:

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The story provides some historical perspective of the occupations of Timbuktu.

My favorite aspect of the story, however, is how both groups’ religious beliefs are included in the story — not just those of the religious extremists, as is so often the case.

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When is it OK to burn Islamic texts?

We’ve been critiquing the good and bad coverage of what’s been happening to Mali in recent months. The latest news is about how fleeing Islamists destroyed a library in Timbuktu. Here’s the Associated Press:

SEVARE, Mali – Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city.

Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Monday. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute , a library rich with historical documents , in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.

Reporting out of Mali has been difficult and I’m so thankful for all those who are doing just that. Here’s Reuters:

The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO said it was trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a modern building that contains priceless documents dating back to the 13th century.

The manuscripts are “uniquely valuable and testify to a long tradition of learning and cultural exchange,” said UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan. “So we are horrified.”

But if they are horrified, historians and religious scholars are unlikely to have been surprised by this gesture of defiance by Islamist rebels fleeing the ancient trading post on the threshold of the Sahara as French and Malian troops moved in.

“It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world,” said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“It’s pure retaliation. They knew they were losing the battle and they hit where it really hurts,” she told Reuters.

OK. Do you have the same question I have at this point?

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