The name Timbuktu has come to evoke the most remote, mysterious, and inaccessible corner of the earth. Five hundred years ago, Timbuktu was a great center of Islamic scholarship and the southern terminus of the principal trans-Saharan route to the western Mediterranean, a cosmopolitan outpost where camel caravans brought buyers and sellers of salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.
As for contemporary Timbuktu, it is an impoverished provincial capital in the West African nation of Mali — a dateline seldom seen on the front pages. But a little news was made there in April when rebel forces, including members of Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist and revolutionary Islamic group, came and conquered.
Ansar Dine's leaders immediately announced the imposition of their interpretation of sharia law, including mandatory veiling of women, a ban on music, the closing of non-religious schools, and hudud punishments — amputations for thieves and stoning for adulterers, for example. Next, they began to destroy Timbuktu's religious sites, including the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque and the 14th-century Djinguereber mosque — even though these sites were Muslim.
By now, it is apparent to all but the determinedly deluded — a club never short of members — that those who call themselves Islamists and jihadis range from intolerant to bellicose and regard Jews, Christians, Hindus, the Baha', and other "infidels" as both inferiors and enemies with whom reconciliation is unthinkable. Destroying their religious symbols is seen as a pious act.
This is why, in March of 2001, the Taliban dynamited the sixth-century stone Buddhas of Bamiyan. It mattered not at all that the Buddhists of Bamiyan and surrounding regions had been converted or killed ages ago. To the Taliban's political and religious leaders the statues were "un-Islamic," and there could be no justification for their preservation. Today in Egypt, some clerics are already discussing the demolition of the pyramids. Muslim Brotherhood leaders are among those not expressing outrage.
Again, this is widely understood. What isn't: Islamic-fundamentalist revolutionaries despise with no less vehemence Muslims whose reading of Islam differs from theirs. Timbuktu has been a center of Sufi Islam. The most revered religious figures in Sufism are regarded as saints; some have been laid to rest in Timbuktu's tombs and mausoleums. To members of Ansar Dine, "Defenders of Faith," this is heresy.
A reporter asked a member of Ansar Dine if the destruction of Muslim religious sites in Timbuktu would continue. "Of course," he replied. "What doesn't correspond to Islam we are going to correct." A retired Timbuktu tour guide told another reporter: "They say they're going to destroy it all, and what we don't know is when." In neighboring Niger, a refugee who had sold food in the market said the Islamists had prevented her from working. "I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know."
Precisely. Islamism comes in a variety of forms, but it is always and everywhere a theological and cultural bulldozer. How ironic that those who claim the most fervid commitment to diversity are often the first to rise to Islamism's defense.
Ansar Dine's reading of Islam is close to that of al-Qaeda, which, in turn, springs from Wahhabism. A small and obscure desert sect just a century ago, Wahhabism has since spread globally thanks to the West's willingness to pay handsomely for the oil that Saudi warriors seized by force of arms from other Arabian tribes and clans. Across the Gulf, Iran has been dominated for more than 30 years by a regime that promotes a rival theology/ideology. Based on Shia rather than Sunni Islam, it is no less fundamentalist, supremacist, and intolerant.
Mali is not the only country in Africa under attack. When I was an Africa correspondent for the New York Times in the 1980s, I often visited Nigeria, the continent's most populous country. Its north is predominantly Muslim, the south mainly Christian. For generations, the two groups enjoyed a reasonable modus vivendi. I actually felt safer in the Muslim north. In such southern cities as Lagos, violent crime was rampant.
Over time, however, a growing number of Nigerian Muslims have been indoctrinated and radicalized — Wahhabized. Earlier this month, Islamist gunmen, reportedly numbering in the hundreds, killed more than 60 Christians in and around the city of Jos in central Plateau State, while displacing hundreds more by setting fire to their homes. Then, at a funeral for the victims, gunmen attacked again, killing more.
Responsibility for the carnage has been claimed by Boko Haram, a sect whose name means "Western education is forbidden." Blamed for more than 1,000 killings over the last two years, Boko Haram is strongly suspected of having close ties with two Africa-based branches of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Shabab, which is in Somalia.
Recently, a new Islamist group announced its existence: Jama'atu Ansarul Musilimina fi Biladin Sudan (Supporters of Islam in the Land of Sudan), which is dedicated to fighting "any group or religion that attacks Islam and Muslims." Its emir, Abu Usamatul Ansar, has accused the Nigerian government, currently headed by a Christian, of "massacring" Muslims.
"There is always something new out of Africa," the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder observed more than 2,000 years ago. What's new now, however, is what is going into Africa — thugs and menacing strains of Islamic extremism. No good can come out of that.