The threat from Islamic extremists to the irreplaceable manuscripts and monuments of Timbuktu is one of several reasons why it is unfortunate that a military force authorized by the United Nations Security Council to recover northern Mali for the government of that country, based in Bamako, will not be ready until September, 2013.
Members of a group calling itself Ansar al-Din, allied to even worse factions such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, have already destroyed numerous monuments to Muslim holy men. The door of one 15th-century mosque has been deliberately wrecked. The extremists are Wahhabis, followers of an 18th-century movement, who believe that Sufism, a form of Islam with mystical elements, is a grave heresy and that the veneration of saints is polytheistic and idolatrous. Just such a destruction of shrines took place in the 20th century when the Saudi family conquered most of the Arabian peninsula.
Some have estimated that there are 700,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu, from the centuries in which learning in all disciplines flourished in the Muslim world. In the 14th century, the great philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun (a north African Arab) could barely credit reports that Aristotelian science had begun to thrive in so barbarous a backwater as Western Europe.
The radical Islamists may or may not yet have turned their attention to Timbuktu’s medieval books, but it must be expected that they will have little mercy on the city’s libraries. Amateurish attempts to move the manuscripts out of harm’s way present a risk to these often beautiful artefacts as well.
Fortunately, Djenné, another old city with many medieval books, is in the south of Mali, is not yet exposed to the fanatics in the north.
The UN World Heritage Committee has passed a resolution to set up an emergency fund to safeguard Mali’s cultural heritage. It would be fanciful to suggest that the responsibility-to-protect doctrine could be extended to old books. This legacy will survive only if the international community recognizes its strategic interest in restoring the Malian government’s power in the north.