What is it about Islam that leads so many Muslims to see their cultural patrimony as something to be despised and even destroyed?
Harking back to the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, Muslims in northern Mali last week moved against their own country’s heritage. The Islamic supremacist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Religion) raised international concern when they began destroying some of the ancient shrines of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, “the city of 333 saints.” According to Ishaan Tharoor in Time magazine, “UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, says as many as half of the city’s shrines ‘have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism.’”
Why would a Muslim group destroy the tombs of Muslim holy men? “The destruction is a divine order,” an Ansar Dine spokesman explained; another added that they planned to destroy all the city’s ancient tombs, “without exception.”
UNESCO and the international media have portrayed Ansar Dine’s stance on this as unthinking fanaticism, contradicting Islam’s tenets: UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova declared that “the attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”