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Gentle past must be preserved

25 January 2013

Islamic extremism is a new phenomenon, says Paul Vallely

FOR generations, the desert city of Timbuktu stood as a symbol of the most distant place imaginable. So, metaphorically, it became again, for a new generation of Islamic extremists, who saw in its gentle Sufi mysticism an implicit rebuke to their narrow and nasty reduction of the rich Islamic faith.

Many of those who have written about hostage-taking and murder in Algeria, or the imposition of severe sharia on the north of Mali, including Timbuktu, have denounced such jihadists as stuck back in the seventh century. That is a basic misunderstanding. As the philosopher John Gray explained in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, such Islamists, far from being medieval, are as contemporary as the globalisation of which they are a by-product. Fundamentalism is essentially a reaction to modernism.

What is more traditional about Islam is the scholarship and tolerance that characterised Timbuktu in its 13th-century golden age, when it rivalled Oxford, Cambridge, or Paris as a centre of learning and spirituality. Its famous mud-built mosques, with their distinctive protruding beam-ends, stood alongside the celebrated University of Sankore, which had some 25,000 students at its zenith. At the crossroads of the ancient caravan routes, where gold was traded for salt, it was also a place of intellectual exchange.

Hundreds of thousands of surviving manuscripts reveal that its scholars, working in Arabic and African languages, composed, copied and imported works on theology, astronomy, mathematics, physics, ethics, law, geography, history, literature, medicine, and botany long before the first European explorer, lured by tales of gold, "discovered" the forbidden city. These Sufi Muslims even recognised divinity in pre-Islamic traditions.

None of that will do for the modern Islamist iconoclasts who have spent the past nine months systematically destroying the "idolatrous" mausoleums of Timbuktu's Sufi saints. Happily, the zealots have now fled the city as French jets have pounded Islamist strongholds in the desert.

That said, the French incursion into Mali smacks of both neo-colonialism and an uncritical acceptance of the Bush/Blair "war on terror" world-view. It would have been far better to use Western economic, financial, and diplomatic muscle to persuade Mali's African neighbours to do the job.

That would also have avoided the possibility of a backlash: Western warriors risk inciting the resentment that can increase rather than diminish the problem that they are there to tackle - as Prince Harry's unwise words on killing the Taliban have reminded us this week. "You stupid boy," as Captain Mainwaring used to say.

In the House of Commons last week, the ghost of Tony Blair echoed through David Cameron's characterisation of al-Qaeda as an "existential threat", and his insistence that intervention is necessary to nip problems in the bud. The irony is that, for centuries, the kaleidoscopic tolerance of Timbuktu stood as a testament to the kind of Islam that the hyped-up rhetoric of our leaders too easily forgets - though it is, of course, the job of moderate Muslims to reassert it.

In its heyday, scholars in Timbuktu advocated greater rights for women and new methods of conflict resolution, and debated how best to incorporate non-Muslims into an Islamic society. In one of the later manuscripts, a spiritual leader in Timbuktu asks the reigning sultan to spare a German explorer, a non-Muslim, who was under sentence of death for entering the holy city.

"He is a human being, and he has not made war against us," one Sheik al-Bakkay wrote, eloquently insisting that Islamic law forbade the killing. The West's leaders today would pay lip-service tribute to such a sentiment. But their actions send a different message. 

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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