Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Saving the Sufi Saints of Timbuktu

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
Tucked away at the bottom end of the Sahara, Timbuktu has long been the perfect metaphor for a mythological exotic other.  In 1510 Moorish author Leo Africanus saw Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth at the height of the Songhai Empire – one of the largest Islamic kingdoms in history. In The History and Description of Africa, Africanus said the ritual in the court in Timbuktu was “exact and magnificent”.  The city's wealth and power came from its position as the southern terminus of a key trans-Saharan trade route. Merchants sold slaves and bought gold and the city was far enough away from everywhere to maintain autonomy. Some 333 Sufi saints are said to be buried in tombs and mausoleums across the city.

If ancient Timbuktu was a fabled place, the reality of modern Timbuktu is more prosaic. Over the centuries, its trade diminished as Atlantic vessels replaced the ships of the desert.  It became more isolated due to local squabbles and changed hands many times. In 1884 a decision in faraway Berlin brought Timbuktu under colonial ownership.  Sited north of a line between Say in Niger to Barou on Lake Chad, European bureaucrats deemed Timbuktu French territory not British. Locals were oblivious to the line on the map until nine years later when a small group of French soldiers annexed the city to the new French Sudan.

Timbuktu was bequeathed to the newly independent state of Mali in 1968. The corruption of Mali’s one party state coincided with the desertification and drought of Timbuktu.  Northern Mali was dying while government in far-away capital Bamako did nothing to avert the crisis. Tuareg independence fighters from the north had long been active in the region and many returned to Mali this year battle-hardened after the Libyan civil war to depose Gadafi.   

They were behind the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad to liberate northern Mali. Helped by a coup d’etat in Bamako in March , the NMLA combined with an Islamist group called Ansar Dine to quickly took over the three biggest cities in the region – including Timbuktu. Ideological differences quickly spread between the two factions. While NMLA was Tuareg nationalist, Ansar Dine was Islamist with links to Mauretanian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It was Ansar Dine who wanted to impose Sharia Law on Timbuktu. The former allies clashed at the battle of Gao  in June. The Islamist faction won a decisive victory and took revenge on recalcitrant locals by destroying Timbuktu’s World Heritage listed old city. On June 30, the BBC reported Islamist fighters damaged the shrines in the city including the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the revered 333 Sufi saints. While UNESCO hissed over the destruction of one its treasures, an Ansar Dine spokesman unapologetically said all the shrines would be destroyed. "God is unique,” he said. “All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. Unesco is what?"

This sweeping certainty of the Islamists is in stark contrast to the views of most Muslims. Ansar Dine enjoys little support among locals and rules by fear. Mali is 97 percent Islamic but the vast majority want nothing to do with the cult of Islamism. Ansar Dine follows not in the path of Mohammed but invented traditions of the twentieth century drawing on fundamentalist icon Sayyid Qutb. Their spokesman was wrong: nothing in the magnificent mausoleums of Timbuktu are haram. 

Where this leaves the city and the rest of Northern Mali, depends on the strength of the new unity government in Bamako, announced overnight.  Imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) it relies on army and civilian leaders to overcome their suspicion of each other and work together.  Next door Niger is alarmed about the dangers of Islamic radicalism in northern Mali. Ansar Dine’s links to AQIM will ensure Western support for the new government.  Financial support for a desperately poor city is imperative. But the fate of Timbuktu and its 333 Sufi saints will ultimately rely on the solidarity of its people to resist the medieval modernist barbarism of the Islamists.

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