DAKAR — The armed group Ansar Dine is destroying shrines to Muslim saints in the ancient city of Timbuktu, saying the sites are idolatrous and un-Islamic. Residents of the northern Malian city say this is baseless and a false pretext. Some worry that condemnation by the international community only provokes Ansar Dine to expand the destruction.
In Mali and in other parts of the world where extremist groups have destroyed shrines, the groups say the sites amount to idol worship and are therefore sacrilegious.
Timbuktu natives say this argument - which they say may or may not be Ansar Dine’s true motivation - denotes a complete misconception of the sites’ significance.
A writer and historian from Timbuktu, who requested anonymity, said, “These saints are not adored by the people of Timbuktu. The people do not see these saints as divine. They go to these sites simply to pay homage to these saints who lived so honorably and consecrated their lives to God.”
He said from centuries back, Muslims of Timbuktu never venerated a human being, only God.
The historian said Timbuktu through the centuries has been dominated by many groups, including Tuareg, Songhoï, Peulh, and the French. But, he said, none ever defiled these saints as is happening today.
A jab at the international community
Several Malians said they see Ansar Dine’s talk of idolatry as nothing but an excuse. They say the group’s actions have nothing to do with Islam; rather they are part of the ongoing battle between terrorist groups and the west.
Haïdara El Hadji Baba, a member of parliament from Timbuktu, said, “Ansar Dine’s real motivation in doing this was to defy the international community.” He noted that militants began demolishing Timbuktu’s shrines right after the United Nations cultural agency classified the ancient city’s heritage as "in danger."
The lawmaker says Timbuktu can only expect worse after the head of the International Criminal Court told the French news agency on Sunday that the actions were war crimes and called on the perpetrators to stop. “With its condemnations the international community is only intensifying Ansar Dine’s desire to destroy.”
UNESCO says it rejects any correlation between its declaration and the vandalism in Timbuktu.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, head of the Africa unit at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, said it’s only normal that UNESCO and other international entities would denounce this destruction of what is world heritage. “Would you have UNESCO remain silent about this? No. It’s crucial that we declare that these sites are important to the entire world and it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect them.”
UNESCO expressed concern about Timbuktu’s ancient mosques and mausoleums earlier on in the Malian crisis. In May, just weeks after Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants took control of northern Mali, armed men desecrated one of the shrines.
The recent rampage on the Timbuktu shrines has triggered worldwide condemnation. One Malian says he is troubled that the international clamor over the destruction of objects has surpassed attention paid to the people, who have been suffering for months.
Boubacar Ibrahim, a resident of Bamako who’s originally from the north, said: “I’m asking myself, why is there such a furor over the destruction of these sites in Timbuktu, while since the occupation of northern Mali human lives have been in danger. Of course I respect these sites, but there are human lives that must be protected here.”
The historian from Timbuktu wants less talk and more action. “When it comes to terrorists, the more the international community butts in, the more atrocities these groups commit,” he said. “The world must stop talking and act.”
Gallery of Timbuktu heritage sites