The Timbuktu Manuscripts: An Important Clarification

15/02/2013 09:47 | Updated 16 April 2013

How time flies. A couple of weeks ago, before the Pope announced his retirement and we discovered something dodgee-gee in our burgers, we were very concerned about some historical manuscripts in Mali. As French and Malian forces approached Timbuktu in their campaign to dislodge the jihadi groups who had established themselves across northern Mali, news organisations reported a wholesale destruction of manuscripts by jihadis as they abandoned the city. There were suggestions that as many as 25,000 manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu had been burned, and even that the building itself had been torched.

When the dust cleared the damage, though serious, turned out not to be as dire as feared. As Professor Shamil Jeppie, director of the outstanding Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, makes clear in this interview, the number of lost manuscripts is closer to 2,000--still, as he says, "bad enough". In time, no doubt, the full story will emerge, but at this stage it appears that a lot of manuscripts were hidden or spirited away from Timbuktu to keep them out of reach of the jihadis. What is not in doubt, however, is that a significant number of manuscripts were burned, and were burned by Islamist extremists.

In the blog I posted earlier this week I cited and questioned this statement by Dr Mohamed Mathee, an academic at the University of Johannesburg who describes himself as "a researcher on the Timbuktu manuscripts once part of the UCT-Tombouctou Manuscripts Project", and thus, by implication, an authoritative commentator on events in Timbuktu. His statement begins with some robust but not unjustified criticism of the sensationalist reports in the early stages of the recapture of Timbuktu, but he doesn't stop there, expressing scepticism that any damage has been done to manuscripts at all, and (should any damage prove to have occurred) going so far as to cast doubt on the identity of the perpetrators:

"While it is possible that the Ansar al-Din destroyed things in their hasty retreat, it must not be ruled out that the French created the story to, 1. Give greater legitimacy to their illegal invasion, and 2. That in the case of them destroying mss in Timbuktu (as happened in Iraq), the blame will then fall on the stupid Ansar al-Din. The media (BBC and ilk) as embedded pen mercenaries were all too happy to report on torched buildings and mss."

Later Dr Mathee rather confirms the impression that he regards the French (and their collaborators, the BBC) as a greater threat to Timbuktu's heritage than the jihadis. Citing a destructive invasion of the area in the sixteenth century, he goes on:

"The French invasion (notwithstanding that the takeover by the Ansar al-Din and the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad's (MNLA) was wrong and heinous) is not unlike that of the 1591 invasion of Songhay and the destruction of its State. If anything, it is worse in an age of "equality" between nations; but also, because in the last one and a half decades we have seen the carnage that unilateral invasions cause."

Whatever may be said about the French intervention in Mali, and there are legitimate anxieties, it was not unilateral, and it was not illegal. Even a generally sceptical commentator like Olivier Roy is clear on that point. Furthermore many people, and this seemingly includes the majority of Malians, have welcomed the removal of illegitimate and repressive rule by al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb and their affiliates. By now we are perfectly clear, too, if there was ever any doubt about it, that the French had nothing to do with the destruction of historical manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Institute. Nevertheless, Dr Mathee's conspiracy theory was widely circulated, and used by certain elements to condemn those sympathetic to the French intervention as ill-informed warmongers. Here, for example, is Mohammed Ansar, a vocal opponent of this intervention based at a computer terminal in Hampshire, citing Dr Mathee's statement to dismiss (with unnecessary rudeness, most people would agree) the concerns of the author Tom Holland.

The basic purpose of this post is to share some important information about the statement on which Mr Ansar based his remarks to Mr Holland. In a personal communication Dr Shamil Jeppie has asked me to communicate that Dr Mathee has no affiliation to the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, and I am delighted to take this opportunity to clarify that Dr Mathee does not speak or write in its name. Whilst Dr Mathee's insinuations about French intentions were quite outrageous, the more significant point to emerge here is that Dr Mathee had no more authority to pronounce on Timbuktu, and dismiss as the reflexes of unreconstructed imperialists valid concerns about radical Islamism, than, well, some random bloke at a computer terminal in Hampshire.