Following their takeover of Timbuktu and the rest of northern Mali in early 2012, Islamist fighters came destroying shrines of Timbuktuand a number of mausoleums and tombs in the city known as the "City of 333 Saints."
Mali's government and the international community have expressed outrage at the destruction of what was once an intellectual and spiritual capital that was critical to the spread of Islam in Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries.
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called the Islamists' actions a "war crime," and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called them "completely unjustifiable."
The majority of Arab and Muslim authorities and political parties have responded negatively. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the destruction of the sites in Mali, arguing that they are part of the country's "rich Islamic heritage and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in danger by bigoted extremist elements."
The attacks have also been condemned by the Moroccan and Algerian governments. The destruction of the shrines was condemned by various Mauritanian political parties.
The Al-Fadhila Party, an Islamist party led by a former Mauritanian diplomat, issued a statement condemning the attacks, stating that the mausoleums belong to honored and respected renowned scholars who spread the message of Islam around the world and should thus be respected.
The Democratic and Social Alliance condemned the attacks, calling them "foolhardy and criminal." The Arab public has been equally critical of Islamists' attacks on Mali's historical Islamic sites, and Salafis have been largely ignored in mainstream Arab media outlets on this issue.
Muhammad Nimr al-Madani, a Syrian writer and journalist, 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 peacefully without destroying such valuable sites.
According to a UAE columnist, when the early Muslim armies and "the Companions" spread Islam around the world, "we never heard that our grandparents, may Allah be pleased with them, destroyed any monuments" during their conquests. In this way, the columnist attempts to argue that the actions of Timbuktu's Islamists have nothing to do with Islam.
The Saudi newspaper As-Sharq Al-Awsat published several stories and articles lamenting the fate of Timbuktu's shrines. Even some Salafi leaders, such as Nabil Na'im, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's senior leader since Ayman al-Zawahiri left Egypt in the 1980s, criticized the way Mali's Islamists handled the "problem" of shrines in Timbuktu.
Despite sharing their hostility toward shrines, Naim contends that "we must first explain the truths about them to their [the shrines'] caretakers and visitors in order 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 pleased with the fate of Timbuktu's historical sites, but their voices were silenced in the mainstream Arab press on the subject. Their praise for the devastation has mostly been limited to their own media outlets, such as online discussion forums or comment sections on Arab newswebsites.
The destruction of Mali's Islamic sites has been widely condemned by Arab political bodies and authors in various mainstream Arab media outlets. However, there have been few attempts to link Mali's militant Islamists' actions to Saudi Arabia's treatment of Islamic sites in the Arabian Peninsula. Since its conquest of Arabia until today, the Saudi regime has been destroying historical sites.
According to the Gulf Institute, based in Washington DC, Saudi Arabia has destroyed approximately 95% of Mecca's millennium-old shrines and buildings in the last two decades alone. However, no Arab country has publicly condemned Saudi Arabia's actions.
The ostensibly liberal Arab newspapers, such as the Saudi As-Sharq Al-Awsat, have completely avoided acknowledging that the same actions they have condemned in Mali are carried out and tolerated by the same Arab regimes that sponsor them. The few Arab voices of opposition to Saudi Arabia's destruction of Islamic sites do not appear to be welcomed by the mainstream Arab media.