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Timbuktu and Bamiyan: A Tale of Two Cities

Posted: 08/02/2013 23:41

I swore blind to myself a couple of weeks ago that I'd never publish another word on Bamiyan. I fear deeply for the future of that beautiful valley and its long-suffering people, but I felt I'd reached a point of just repeating myself. One thing Bamiyan should never be is boring.

Yet here I am, harping on Bamiyan again. The reason is Timbuktu, 4,000 miles away from Afghanistan and on another continent, yet as similar to Bamiyan as a town in the grip of desertification could possibly be to a green and fertile (and in winter, snow-covered) valley high in the Afghan mountains. Once upon a time Timbuktu and Bamiyan were both flourishing cities serving trade routes, one across the Sahara Desert (and along the River Niger) and the other through the mountain barrier of the Hindu Kush. Salt, gold and slaves flowed into Timbuktu, and alongside those high-status goods another, the religion of Islam. The story of Bamiyan's conversion from Buddhism to Islam was also, we think, mainly a matter of camel caravans and social climbing. Like Bamiyan, Timbuktu's trade wealth translated into political power, and it became a centre of religious learning, and also a place where trade and scholarship drew diverse ethnicities together.

In their heyday Timbuktu and Bamiyan were celebrated places. In time history left them behind, guarding precious survivals of their past glory--mosques and saints' tombs, manuscripts, the giant Buddhas--but both coming to seem almost impossibly remote: Timbuktu turned into a by-word for an exotic, far-flung place, while Bamiyan became a leading candidate for the site of the Garden of Eden. A sign of their one-time prestige is that they almost have in common the great North-African traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited Timbuktu in 1353 (he saw his first hippopotamus in the Niger nearby). Twenty years earlier, as he travelled towards India, Ibn Battuta heard tell of Bamiyan, but he followed a detour over the Hindu Kush that avoided it, most likely because Bamiyan had yet to recover from its obliteration at the hands of Genghis Khan in 1221. All that had survived of the city, according to Ibn Battuta, was the minaret of its main mosque.

Today these places are associated for different reasons. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan has become the automatic point of reference whenever there are threats to cultural artefacts. Whether it's (bogus) reports of plans to demolish the Pyramids of Giza, or destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu or Libya, the chorus is that it's "Bamiyan all over again". But it isn't just the people deploring these acts of vandalism who make the connection. The jihadis who occupied towns in northern Mali, and pursued their intolerant version of Islam by demolishing Sufi shrines and burning manuscripts, are themselves inspired by what happened in Bamiyan. They are sophisticated manipulators of international reaction, perfectly aware how provocative images of cultural destruction are for people who do not share their ideology. Their greatest ambition is to incite an all-encompassing conflict with those they consider the irreconcilable enemies of Islam, which means anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who do not share their fundamentalist strain of Islam. Bamiyan was, from a jihadi perspective, an immense success, simultaneously advertising the cause to potential sympathizers (foreign volunteers to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida reportedly ballooned in the month following the destruction of the Buddhas), and provoking intense antipathy elsewhere.

Let me strain my readers' patience by adding two more points of comparison between Bamiyan and Timbuktu, the two which seem to me most important in February 2013. The first is that in both cases the damage to cultural artefacts, although deplorable, pales into insignificance when set against the brutality visited upon the people of these places. The wider context of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan is too little appreciated; and we've heard appalling things from Mali. The second is a certain moral equivocation that entered discussion of the destruction of the Buddhas and is threatening to do the same in the case of the burning of the Timbuktu manuscripts. It has been claimed by some ever since 2001 that the destruction of the Buddhas was not an act of extremist iconoclasm but a cri de coeur from an Afghan people abandoned by the international community and in the grip of food shortages. That argument doesn't stack up even on its own terms (it was the Taliban that destroyed the Buddhas, and the Taliban displayed precious little concern for starving Afghan children), but in any case it's a travesty of any reasonable notion of moral responsibility. The men responsible for the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan were the men who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan: the high leadership of the Taliban and their foreign allies and supporters at the time.

If we turn to Timbuktu, when there emerges from an otherwise reputable source, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, a wild insinuation that the French might destroy manuscripts to cast the jihadists in a unflattering light (as if there was any necessity for that), and when from others we hear the suggestion that it was French intervention that somehow provoked the jihadis to vandalise the manuscripts, and thus with the West that ultimate responsibility lies, it looks like we have the beginnings of a similar kind of counter-narrative, aimed to excuse, partly or wholly, the obnoxious ideology that lies behind these actions. The international community needs to be very careful in Mali, sensible and proportionate in their treatment of all communities in the country. Above all, they must not react, or overreact, to provocation by what is, in the final analysis, a very small group of extremists, since this is exactly what those extremists want. That said, bad faith is not a good basis for sound policy. We need to be clear what that small rump of jihadis is about, and we aren't going to understand their repellent worldview properly unless we accept--and I know it isn't rocket science-- that the men responsible for destroying religious buildings and manuscripts in Timbuktu are the ones who destroyed them.


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