Heritage lost: The destruction of Mali's holy sites must be stopped
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Islamist extremists' destruction of Islamic shrines in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu in northern Mali is a crime against the heritage of all mankind and must be stopped.
One of the most lamentable byproducts of political violence with religious bases is the destruction by different groups of their opponents' holy shrines. This occurred during the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, at Bamiyan in Afghanistan where the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist statues, and in other conflicts across the centuries, including in Europe during World War II.
If there is such a thing as civilized warfare, one mark of it is protection by all sides of the religious shrines of the various parties to the conflict, recognizing their sanctity or historical importance. One means the world has adopted to try to preserve such places is their designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage Site. Another landmark in a sensitive area recently designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, at the request of the Palestinian Authority, was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Its designation was opposed by Israel and the United States, which oppose Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
What is taking place at Timbuktu, the ancient trading and intellectual center where the Sahara Desert meets the West African Coast is an abomination. An extreme Salafist Sunni sect, in military control of Timbuktu, is destroying systematically mausoleums of saints and mosques of the Sufi Sunni sect built centuries ago. The city of Timbuktu is a World Heritage Site.
Northern Mali fell into the hands of the aggressor sect, the Ansar Dine, when a military coup d'etat led by a U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, overthrew the democratically elected president of Mali in March. The Malian government's authority fell apart at that point and competing militias, including the Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, took over more than half the country, including Timbuktu.
It isn't clear what can be done to prevent Ansar Dine from destroying more religious sites, but, for a start, the intervention of Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Protector of the Islamic Holy Sites in Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina, should be invoked on an urgent basis. Part of the heritage of all of mankind is in the process of being destroyed in Timbuktu for no valid or comprehensible reason.
First Published July 5, 2012 12:00 am