News / Africa

Timbuktu Residents Reject Islamists' Reason for Destroying Shrines

Nancy Palus
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


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Comment Sorting
by: Tije Njue from: Abuja
July 05, 2012 1:18 PM
But why are Muslims so comfortable with the actions Islamists take in the name of Allah? No muslim cleric has risen his voice in condemnation to the masacre and suffering inflicted by Islamists. And its getting worse by the day.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
July 04, 2012 11:06 AM
It's really really regrettable! In Nigeria it's boko haram, in Mali it's tuareg rebels. All these come from the religion of "peace". This is most doubtful. A religion that preaches peace will never allow this form of destruction - both of human lives and property. Yet everyday we are inundated with disclaimers - rehearsed rhetorics only designed to deceive the gullible. In these nations where these terrorists ply their trade for islam, there are imams and heads of the religion. None of them has raised a voice to condemn them or their act. Saying their action is unislamic is not enough, LET US HEAR SOMEONE PLACE A CURSE ON THEM FOR THAT ACT, for curses are highly respected in islam. Keeping quiet as the heads of the religion in Tehran and Riyadh have done only shows that it is a case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Is someone listening? Let's have a national day of prayer in all these countries troubled by ISLAMIC terrorists in which the chief imams gather to declare a CURSE on these terrorists. Any imam that fails to attend should be queried. Thereby we can find out who really are behind these terrorists.

by: JR from: brazil
July 03, 2012 7:24 PM
It's regretable!
In Response

by: JR from: Brazil
July 04, 2012 5:56 PM
To Hilda. I said regretable because I thougth that it could express all my disapproval about. However I've never heard about egypicians neither palestinians destructions as you told. About the other countries do somenthing to avoid that, what do you think they could do? A war to protect the shrines set abrod?
In Response

by: Hilda from: Holland
July 04, 2012 10:15 AM
"regrettable...?" that is all you could come up with...??? we have seen this desecrations all over the world... Egyptian Muslimes destroying the ancient pyramids and Monuments of Laxur... Taliban Muslimes destroying the ancient monuments of Buddha.... Palestinians destroying the ancient monuments of the house of Israel... yet the world does not react because its tied with the Politically Correct mentality that will lead to its destruction...

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