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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Islamist crimes against humanity in Mali

The Washington Post has a tough, but very important, read on the deteriorating situation in Mali. The first point to make is to thank the paper for devoting the resources necessary to bring to light this story about terrorism against vulnerable people. It can’t be easy and it’s deeply appreciated.

The story begins with Fatima Al Hassan being sentenced to 100 lashes with an electrical cord for giving a male visitor to her house. We’re told that “Islamist radicals” who’ve seized the north are to blame. We’re told that a coalition of Western and regional powers are preparing to retake northern Mali within the next year.

But such an action, if approved by the U.N. Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer or fall, U.S. and other Western officials say, and political turmoil in the south is adding to the uncertainty. That has raised fears that the extremists could consolidate their grip over the Texas-size territory and further terrorize civilians, particularly women and children.

“The people are losing all hope,” said Sadou Diallo, a former mayor of the northern city of Gao. “For the past eight months, they have lived without any government, without any actions taken against the Islamists. Now the Islamists feel they can do anything to the people.”

Refugees fleeing the north are now bringing stories that are darker than those recounted in interviews from this summer. Although their experiences cannot be independently verified — because the Islamists have threatened to kill or kidnap Westerners who visit — U.N. officials and human rights activists say that they have heard similar reports of horrific abuses and that some may amount to war crimes.

I had previously criticized a piece for writing about the horrors in Mali using a single anonymous source. I liked the way this reporter acknowledged the limits to verifying reports, while doing a great job of working around that problem.

Early in the piece, I hoped we’d learn about what religious beliefs separated these Islamists from the Muslims they’re terrorizing. While that was not as well fleshed out as I may have hoped for, we did get specifics about what the Islamists are doing:

The refugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.

We’re told that the radicals have “imposed a hard-edged brand of sharia law, echoing Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, in this West African country where moderate Islam has thrived for centuries.”

I have suspicions about how moderate sharia and a hard-edged sharia differ but could have used some help spelling it out. Is it a difference in degree of punishment? A difference in what is deemed worthy of punishment? Something else altogether? And the things these radicals are doing — depriving people of basic freedoms, destroying historic tombs, denying children education, ridding the country of doctors and nurses and clinics — what, exactly, is the religious defense for these things? We’re told they’re doing them for religious reasons but I could use some info about the particular religious reasons.

Anyway, the situation sounds just horrific. Roving police squads scour neighborhoods for violations. A healthy amount of the story is devoted to the practices of rape and forced weddings.

[T]he Islamists have … encouraged their fighters to marry women and girls, some as young as 10, and often at gunpoint. After sex, they initiate a quick divorce. In an extreme case that has shocked the country, a girl in Timbuktu was forced last month to “marry” six fighters in one night, according to a report in one of Mali’s biggest newspapers.

“They are abusing religion to force women and girls to have intercourse,” said Ibrahima Berte, an official at Mali’s National Commission for Human Rights. “This kind of forced marriage is really just sexual abuse.”

In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist commander conceded that his fighters were marrying young girls.

“Our religion says that if a girl is 12, she must get married to avoid losing her virginity in a wrong way,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three radical groups ruling the north. The other two are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the network’s North and West Africa affiliate; and Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith.”

And kudos for getting a military leader on the phone to admit to the practice and explain the religious loophole. We’re also told how the radicals manipulate Muslim sentiment to buy children:

“They give $10 to impoverished parents to recruit their children in the name of defending Islam,” said Gaoussou Traore, the secretary general of Comade, a Malian children’s rights group. “The Islamists tell parents that their children will go to paradise, that they will benefit in the next world.”

I like the use of quotes to quickly explain how this practice works.

A section of the story deals with the practice of destroying or vandalizing businesses deemed unIslamic:

Inside his barbershop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favored by American and French rappers on the wall. The Islamists sprayed white paint over it, he recalled, and warned him that he risks being whipped if he shaves off anyone’s beard.

This just reminds me of my requests for additional information on the trial of Nidal Hasan. He’s claimed he can’t shave his beard for religious reasons. I’ve wondered why this claim hasn’t been explored by journalists. Which schools of Islam teach this?

Anyway, this piece is well worth a read. It’s well written and well reported. The ending is quite powerful, too.


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