Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

There is a war of sorts going on today in Timbuktu in Mali, a West African country. It is a war against culture and civilisation. And those perpetuating it are a band of thugs and criminals who are operating under the cloak of ‘Islamists’.

Since the 11th century, Timbuktu, an ancient Saharan trading depot for salt, gold and other resources, had developed into a renowned seat of Islamic learning and survived occupations by hordes of foreign invaders. By the 12th century, Timbuktu had become a famous centre of Islamic learning, with three distinguished universities and more than 180 schools.

Many call it the golden age of Africa. This love for knowledge and the arts that had brought Islam to medieval Europe in the Dark Ages and led to many great scholars and discoveries continued in this African city for several centuries as well. Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but were also imported and copied there. At the time, there was an unparalleled book industry flourishing in this fabled city. The universities and private libraries contained incomparable scholarly works.

In 1893, the French colonised Mali and Timbuktu came under French control until Mali regained her independence in 1960. However, many manuscripts and books that once were part of Timbuktu’s libraries were plundered and can be found in French museums and universities.

The country has been going through a period of instability and lawlessness since a military coup sparked fighting in March of this year. Much of the country is still in grave turmoil, with an armed gang of thugs calling themselves the Ansar Dine controlling much of the north of the country, where the city of Timbuktu is located. These thugs, who were on the fringes until the rebellion, took advantage of a power vacuum created by the coup in the capital to seize ground in the north.

This band of terrorists has recently turned their guns and fanaticism against the historical shrines that had made the city of Timbuktu a beacon of learning through so many centuries. They have used pick-axes, shovels, hammers and guns to destroy earthen tombs and shrines of local saints in the desert city of Timbuktu, claiming that they are doing so to defend the purity of their faith against idol worship. They are behind the destruction of at least eight Timbuktu mausoleums and several tombs, centuries-old shrines in what is known as the ‘City of 333 Saints’.

The group stated its intent to destroy historic sites in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu before they implement strict Sharia law, while Mali’s government looks on helplessly. “We’re going to destroy everything before we apply Sharia in this city,” said a spokesman for these rebels. The government did condemn the destruction, and stated that “The council of ministers has just approved, in principle, the referral to the International Criminal Court and a working group is working to this end.”

There has also been immediate condemnation from both within and outside Mali. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor at New York’s Columbia University and an expert on Islamic philosophy in Africa stated: “They are striking at the heart of what Timbuktu stands for. Mali and the world are losing a lot.”

Bouya Ould Sidi Mohammad in Timbuktu stated that the historic city has long had Muslim roots. “Timbuktu was an Islamic city since the 12th century, and we know what the religion says about the saints’ tombs. Contrary to what the Islamists or the Wahabis of Ansar Dine say, here in Timbuktu, the people don’t love the saints like God, but just seek the saints’ blessings because they are our spiritual guides.”

Mahamadou Hima Dit Nourou who was among the tens of thousands Malian refugees who fled to neighbouring Niger lamented: “I think this kind of madness of Ansar Dine is horrible. The entire place for history is in Timbuktu, this is not Sharia. Even if you see what they did, the destruction in Timbuktu, maybe the mosque, the big mosque, the cemetery for person who died, they said is no good — who tell them that? Who tell them it is not in the Quran? We never read that.”

The International Criminal Court has already issued a statement calling the destruction of Timbuktu’s religious landmarks a potential war crime. “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now,” said Fatou Bensouda, an ICC prosecutor.

The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), deplored the destruction of historical sites in Timbuktu by religious extremist groups, and said that the sites were part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harms way by bigoted extremist elements.

That is exactly what these rebels are. Thugs, bigoted extremists, and power-mad opportunists who now want to implement their brand of skewered faith in an uncontrolled part of Mali.

For having the gall to label themselves Islamists, they should be rounded up and put in front of an execution squad. No excuses. Islam has no links in relation to the acts of these thugs.

— Tariq A. Al-Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.