Timbuktu: What It Really Tells Us

08/07/2012 21:31 | Updated 07 September 2012

Pamela Geller is not someone you naturally go to for balanced coverage of Islamic issues (she has expressed the view that "Islam is the most antisemitic, genocidal ideology in the world", for example), but in a recent tweet (linking to her blog) on the appalling vandalism to mosques and mausolea in Timbuktu, Mali, Geller excelled even herself: "Mali Muslims destroy holy Timbuktu sites: witnesses: It's the same everywhere that Muslims seek to impose Islam..."

What Geller failed to mention was that the "holy Timbuktu sites" under assault were themselves Islamic sites, thus hardly the victims of "Muslims imposing Islam". In reality, what is happening in Timbuktu is one group within the broad spectrum of Islam violently imposing its blinkered ideology on another tradition in Islam with which it disagrees. The group carrying out the destruction, Ansar al-Din ("Defenders of the Faith"), are Salafist or Wahhabi Muslims, drawing their inspiration, like al-Qaeda, from schools particularly influential in the Arabian Peninsula (though currently showing a worrying capacity to seed themselves elsewhere). The traditions of worship in Timbuktu are Sufi, Islamic mysticism considered idolatrous by fundamentalist groups such as Ansar al-Din.

This shouldn't need to be spelled out or repeated, but 11 years after 9/11 it unfortunately still does: al-Qaeda and other extremist forms of Islamism influenced by the Wahhabi or Salafist schools may claim to represent a pure form of Islam, may even be claimed by Pamela Geller to represent Islam in its purest form, but they have as much right to insist that theirs is the only true Islam as the Quran-burning pastor in Florida is to make that claim of his version of Christianity. One of the scariest things about radical, violent Islamism is its ability to persuade some Muslims and some non-Muslims that it is the authentic face of Islam. Take a look at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, investigating the rich scholarly culture of Timbuktu from the thirteenth century onwards, hundreds of years of Islamic life and learning, and that notion will seem as absurd as it deserves to.

An almost automatic reflex when we hear about Timbuktu is to remember Bamiyan in 2001, and the reaction this last week has tended to be, "Oh no, it's Bamiyan all over again." In time we'll hear more about the local factors that influenced events, and then the parallels with what happened a decade ago and 4,000 miles away in Afghanistan will no doubt seem less compelling. But there is some substance to the comparison of Timbuktu and Bamiyan, and while our attention is focused on acts of cultural desecration (not something that can often be said), there are some useful points to be made.

What do Timbuktu and Bamiyan have in common? Well, they're both places with evocative names that we don't know very much about. Historically, they were great medieval trading posts (Timbuktu's speciality was gold), which through their centrality and wealth (both Buddhism and Islam are religions very sympathetic to commerce) turned into centres of religion and scholarship. Something else they share, I'm afraid, is that, in Timbuktu as in Bamiyan, the well-intentioned efforts of the international community may have contributed to the catastrophic turn of events. At Bamiyan the suspicion is that it was precisely the intense international interest in the fate of the Buddhas that encouraged the Taliban's al-Qaeda allies to push for the statues' destruction. As the Afghan expert Olivier Roy has put it, "Al-Qaeda, which has never had roots in social movements, ceases to exist if it isn't on the front pages and on our television screens." Organisations committed to global jihad (and that includes Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda) actively seek opportunities to outrage and provoke the wider world. International expressions of concern about Timbuktu, culminating in UNESCO declaring Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in Danger on 28 June, may well have brought home to the extremists in Mali how big an impact they could make by doing exactly what the outside world were telling them not to.

But the most important point of similarity between Bamiyan and Timbuktu lies in the nature of the organizations doing the damage. By claiming that their actions represent the only acceptable Islamic way, Ansar al-Din are discounting centuries of Islamic observance in Timbuktu. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were (fairly obviously) Buddhist in origin, but it's rarely appreciated how long the Buddhas of Bamiyan survived under Islam without experiencing any significant damage: about 1,200 years until the Taliban came along. In that time there was apparently no attempt to destroy the Buddhas; on the contrary, the Buddhas became celebrated wonders of the Muslim world.

The local Hazara people of Bamiyan incorporated the Buddhas into their folklore. One marvellous story tells how the Buddhas were sculpted by the survivors emerging from Noah's ark. As the Flood receded, it left the ground still a little damp and malleable, so they took the opportunity to mould the statues in thanks to God for their deliverance. Another Muslim writer, from the twelfth century, explained that the Buddhas were a gift from Allah to mankind, describing how the Buddhas were attuned to nature: pigeons nested in their noses and both Buddhas smiled when the sun rose. "This smile should not be thought strange, for whatever the sun shines on, cheerfulness and joviality appear in it, and that thing inclines towards the sun."

The people of Bamiyan are deeply pious Muslims, albeit Shia and thus (like the Sufi of Timbuktu) heretics in the eyes of Salafists. The Hazara people suffered terribly at the hands of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces largely as a consequence of being Shia. The piety of that 12th Century writer is also as plain as day. The ideologues of Ansar al-Din have not the slightest right to claim precedence for their own narrow interpretation of the faith. But it's equally important for non-Muslims not to confuse extremist caricatures of Islam for the real thing. Ideologues in one camp have a habit of creating ideologues in other camps, and the argument goes on and on and on...