Al-Qaida’s offenses against humanity are too numerous to count. The gratuitous murders, the mutilations and the sheer terror inflicted by these Islamic extremists continue to outrage people of all faiths, including Islam.
More than a decade ago in Afghanistan, Islamic extremists — the Taliban — demonstrated their contempt for the cultural sensibilities of other people when they destroyed that country’s historical treasures. The Taliban in 2001 dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas that had been carved into a cliff in the sixth century. One of them, 165 feet tall, had been the world’s largest standing Buddha.
More recently, a different group of extremists has sought to destroy the heritage of another ancient culture. The vandals in this instance call themselves Ansar Dine – “Protectors of the Faith,” and, said a spokesman, “The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Sharia.”
They’re an al-Qaida affiliate that has operated unchecked in much of Mali until being driven off this month by the French. Apart from innocent people, Ansar Dine’s targets have been tombs and other sacred sites in the fabled West African city of Timbuktu. The tombs they destroyed include that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a Sufi saint who died in 955. The extremists also damaged the Sidi Yaya, a 600-year-old mosque.
What is unclear is how much damage these “Protectors of the Faith” have done to an even greater cultural treasure — Timbuktu’s manuscripts. Timbuktu was an important center of Islamic learning and trade, and it has been home to tens of thousands of Arabic manuscripts and scrolls, some of which are 900 years old. Their topics include mathematics and science, law and philosophy, theology and medicine. Although UNESCO and researchers have worked to photograph them so they can be shared with the world, they’ve been through barely 10 percent of them.
Because Timbuktu has been conquered before, its people have learned to protect the precious manuscripts. Many are buried or hidden in locations outside the city.
These manuscripts aren’t just Arabic or African treasures; they hold value for all humanity. “We’re talking about generations and generations of culture being destroyed,” said Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation. “It’s an outrage for the entire world.”
It’s enough of an outrage that the vandals, whose acts under international law are considered war crimes, should face prosecution.