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Desecration of cultural sites at Timbuktu: Does France care? The world?

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The name Timbuktu conjures up mystery and the magic of a far off place seemingly untouched by modernity, lest  alone violence. But the ancient city of Timbuktu, lost in the remote reaches of the Sahara has sadly been thrust into the headlines as an Islamic fundamentalist group has been destroying historic and religious sites to the shock of the world.

Ironically these sites include Muslim tombs and mosques which are part of another sect of Islam.

Islamic groups destroyed Timbuktu shrines. / ABC News

Long the crossroads of caravan trade commerce and religious learning dating to the 13th century,  Timbuktu sits on the parched edge of the Sahara and West Africa.  Part of the landlocked state of Mali, Timbuktu has been a center of lore and legend since French explorers put the place into contemporary consciousness.

Given that Mali is victim of ethnic and religious violence, the northern part of the country has fallen under the control of a number of separatist and Islamic factions who not only oppose the central government in far off Bamako, but have tried to establish an independent state Azawad.

Mali’s recent troubles are rooted in the disintegration of  Libya; many of the Tuareg tribesmen who served Gaddafi as mercenaries returned to their homelands. Though the Tuareg who live in many of the surrounding countries were historically marginalized and mistreated in Mali, now they have returned with vengeance, weapons stockpiles and a cause.

Beyond the cultural and religious desecration by the Abu Dine movement, what’s transpiring in Mali under the political radar is the creation of a radical Islamic emirate similar to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan before 2001.  Few are watching as the patrimony of an ancient desert kingdom is being desecrated and destroyed.  .

Irina Bokova, Director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated her dismay over the destruction of three sacred tombs which are part of the World Heritage List.   “Reports that Mausoleums have been destroyed is extremely distressing,” she warned, “there is no justification for such wanton destruction.”

“It’s paradoxical and incomprehensible”  Prof. Jean-Michel Djian quoted in Le Figaro, “If they do it  is because they have no culture, its a form of gratuitous violence,”  where a movement wishes to destroy such significant historic monuments.

According to Paris-based UNESCO, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual center as early as the 15th and 16th centuries as well as a hub of the trans-Saharan trade.  Many of the buildings are of a unique style of adobe type pyramids, dating from the 1490’s

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned “Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified.”

But beyond the cultural damages, the political fallout from the widening crisis has seen  over 320,000 people flee their homes since the military coup de etat in March.  Now the north of Mali, the size of France, could host a radical Islamic Emirate.

Following the disarray of the central government, both Tuareg rebels and Islamic jihadi warriors briefly joined forces. Most Tuareg sought an independent but secular state. Yet the Al-Qaida linked Ansar Dine movement stress radical Islam. This group has imposed Islamic Sharria Law and calls ancient Muslim shrines sacrilegious.

Prof. Abdelmajid Charfi, a Tunisian scholar, warns that “In Mali Ansar Dine is under the direct influence of wahhabism.”  In an interview in Jeune Afrique magazine published in Paris, he stated, “I think that Wahhabi influence is the work of Ansar Dine in Mali.” The austere Saudi-inspired group dates to the 18th century and opposes the veneration of saints.

Tuareg rebels seek a secular state Azawad have condemned the attacks in historic sites in Timbuktu.  Al-Qaida in the Maghreb and its Ansar Dine allies are striving to put all Mali under Islamic law. France sees the separatist movements as an emerging threat and wants to stop new “international terror bases.”

But this wanton barbarism recalls the Taliban whose vengeance against Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were destroyed in March 2001.  The hateful destruction and desecration of the historic Buddhist statues by the emboldened Taliban was condemned by the UN and the West but to little avail.

France faces a number of clear and stark choices in its former colony.  The Foreign Ministry has called the cultural destruction “an intolerable act.”

Yet shall France intervene in its former West African colony?  Will the new President Francois Hollande dare to deploy the Foreign Legion to this former outpost to restore order, as many past French presidents would have done in such a situation?  Does the world notice?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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