Islamist fighters have destroyed various mausoleums and tombs in Timbuktu, known as the “City of 333 Saints,” in the aftermath of their seizure of the city and the rest of northern Mali in early 2012. Mali’s government and the international community have expressed outrage at the damage inflicted on what used to be an intellectual and spiritual capital that played an essential role in the spread of Islam in Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries. International Criminal Court Chief Persecutor Fatou Bensouda described the Islamists’ actions as a “war crime,” and United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon deplored them as “totally unjustifiable.”
The response of various Arab and Muslim authorities and political parties has been, for the most part, critical. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation decried the destruction of the sites in Mali, reasoning that they are part of “the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harms way by bigoted extremist elements.”
Different Mauritanian political parties denounced the destruction of the shrines. Al-Fadhila Party, an Islamist party headed by a former Mauritanian diplomat, has issued a statement condemning the attacks, noting that the mausoleums belong to honored and respected renowned scholars who spread the message of Islam around the world, and hence they should be respected. The Democratic and Social Alliance was more critical towards the attacks, calling them “foolhardy and criminal.”
The Arab public has been equally critical of the actions of Islamists against Mali’s historical Islamic sites, and the Salafis have been largely marginalized in mainstream Arab media outlets on this issue. A Syrian writer and journalist, Muhammad Nimr al-Madani, has written an article on a Kurdish website titled End the Destruction of Shrines in Timbuktu, in which he argues that the Salafis could preach their message through peaceful means without destroying such valuable sites.
A columnist from the UAE has disapproved of the destruction, saying that when the early Muslim armies and “the Companions” spread Islam around the world, “we never heard that our grandparents, may Allah be please with them, destroyed any monuments” during their conquests. In this way, the columnist tries to argue that the actions of the Islamists in Timbuktu have nothing to do with Islam.
The Saudi newspaper As-Sharq Al-Awsat ran several stories and articles lamenting the fate of the shrines in Timbuktu. Even some Salafi leaders, like Nabil Na’im, a senior leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad since Ayman al-Zawahiri left Egypt in the 1980s, criticized the way the Islamists of Mali have handled the “problem” of shrines in Timbuktu. Even though Naim shares with them their hostility toward shrines, he argues, “we have to explain first for their [the shrines] caretakers and visitors the truths about them to change their beliefs and propel those who believe in them to destroy them by themselves and avoid ourselves and society from entering into the maze of violence and counter violence.”
Many Salafis in the Arab world were happy with the fate of Timbuktu’s historical sites, but their voice has been marginalized in the mainstream Arab press on this issue. Their praise for the destruction has been, for the most part, confined to their own media outlets such as online discussion forums or the comment sections on Arab news websites.
Arab political bodies and authors in different mainstream Arab media outlets have largely condemned the destruction of Mali’s Islamic sites. However, there have been few attempts to link the actions of Mali’s militant Islamists with the way Saudi Arabia treats Islamic sites in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi regime has been destroying historical sites since its conquest of Arabia until today. The Gulf Institute, based in Washington DC, estimates that Saudi Arabia has destroyed about 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old shrines and buildings in the last two decades alone. However, no Arab state has publicly condemned Saudi actions. The supposedly liberal Arab newspapers like the Saudi As-Sharq Al-Awsat have totally avoided acknowledging that the same actions they have condemned in Mali are perpetrated and acquiesced by the same Arab regimes that sponsor them. The few Arab voices dissenting against Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Islamic sites do not appear to be welcomed in the mainstream Arab press.