Islamic militants destroyed two of the historic tombs at the famous 14th century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu this week. The militants from the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam are idolatrous. In the meantime, some Egyptian Muslim extremists are following the victory by the Muslim Brotherhood with demands that the pyramids be destroyed for the same reason. Obviously these are extreme groups within the Muslim community. This later story is based on accounts coming from various sites but appear based on the same claimed translation of sites, though some have called it a hoax.
The attack in Timbuktu was well planned — using an armored four-wheel drive truck and keeping locals at bay by firing guns in the area while the tombs were destroyed. It is reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan – a true crime against humanity and the world’s cultural sites. For these extremists, it is not enough to disagree with a culture, you must destroy its images and history to please Allah.
The Timbuktu site is designated a world historic and religious landmark by UNESCO. The Ansar Dine group however had designated it idolatrous. They have already destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city as well as a number of tombs and a sacred door at Sidi Yahya mosque.
In the meantime, some Muslims in Egypt allegedly have bigger hopes for destruction. According to reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have called for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids as “symbols of paganism.” Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs” and President of National Unity, is quoted as calling on Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, to “destroy the Pyramids and accomplish what the Sahabi Amr bin al-As could not.” This refers to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s companion, Amr bin al-As, who is believed to have conquered Egypt in 641 and proceeded to destroy Egyptian antiquities as relics of infidelity, including burning ancient books of the great Library of Alexandria as not conforming to the Koran.
Last year, the Salafi party was reported as suggesting the dumping tons of wax on the pyramids to turn them into misshapen blobs — burying their offense to Islam.
Even if the latest account is true, it is clear that most Muslims share the same shock and disgust with these actions and proposals. It is simply remarkable how some religious people believe wanton destruction of culture and history is necessary to please the Almighty. It is not enough to follow your own beliefs but to prevent others from even viewing opposing images. Islam is entering a key period where these voices of intolerance must be met with more moderate and educated Muslim voices. I can only imagine the fear and anger of Muslim academics who are watching these forces of ignorance destroy tombs and artifacts that trace the rich history of their countries and culture.
These crimes also show the impact of insular religious training and indoctrination. These are obviously men who have been given little exposure to anything other than extremist Islamic training in Madrassas and mosques. They are the product of years of reinforced dogma and extremist sermons that teach them to fear and hate outside groups and non-believers. The most unsettling thing is not to see the destruction of these historic sites but the joy and euphoria of those who destroy them.
Of course for the extremist clerics, the destruction of these sites old the benefit of diminishing the interest of Western tourists in visiting countries like Egypt. The greatest threat to their existence is exposure to alternative cultures and viewpoints. An isolated and improverished country is ideal for controlling a population.