The destruction of the sixth-century monumental Buddha statues of Bamiyan in March 2001 by the Taliban shocked many persons concerned with the preservation of world cultural legacy. Such examples of iconoclasm were not new in Islamic history.
In the name of the restoration of the purity of the faith, groups with similar persuasions have destroyed Sufi and Shiite shrines in various parts of the Arabian Peninsula during the nineteenth and twentieth century. But until very recently, few observers believed that such examples of iconoclasm will ever reach the Sahel.
Although the Sahelian countries had overwhelming Muslim populations, Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa was believed to be peaceful compared to elsewhere in the Arab World. In most of the twentieth century, no armed Islamic group was to be found anywhere in the Sahel. Very few Sub-Saharans trained in Afghanistan during the Soviet Occupation or joined al-Qaeda, and suicide bombing was unheard of until a few years ago. This is not so much because intolerant Islamic groups were not to be found in the Sahel, but they had neither the sophistication nor the logistical and financial resources to challenge state power.
In recent years, a variety of jihadi groups have appeared in the Sahel, the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Movement for Unicity and Jihad in West Africa. Recently, these groups have linked up with AQIM which provided them with sophisticated military training and substantial financial and logistical resources. In the last few years, jihadi groups have stated a clear agenda of Islamizing the Sahel. Nowhere have these jihadi groups been a greater threat to state power than in Mali. Since it became independent from French colonial rule in 1960, this poor Sahelian nation about the size of California and Texas combined has been struggling to preserve its national integrity. Until 2012, the threat came essentially from secular Tuareg groups who resented marginalization in the context of postcolonial Mali.
In January 2012, an assortment of Salafi jihadi groups allied with secular Tuareg groups, defeated the garrisons of the Malian national army stationed in the north of the country, conquered two thirds of the Malian territory, and proclaimed an Islamic state. Immediately after, they started to implement Islamic penal law, cutting hands and feet of thieves, lapidating adulterers, forcing all women to wear headscarves, and dismantling centuries-old Sufi shrines designated by UNESCO as world cultural heritage sites.
Incapable of restoring its national sovereignty alone, the Malian government has been seeking outside help since February 2012. Since then, the Malian crisis has been placed in the heart of the agenda of leading regional African and international bodies: the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations. For ten months, no serious initiative to restore Malian national integrity was undertaken. Boosted by the passivity of the international community, the insurgent groups decided in January 2013 to extend their territorial control to the remaining third of the country. They prompted the French intervention in the side of the Malian army on January 11 2013.
On January 27, the French and Malian troops re-conquered Timbuktu. On the same day, a journalist of Sky News, embedded with the French troops reported that 25,000 manuscripts had been burnt or disappeared. Interviewed from Bamako, the capital city of Mali located hundreds of miles away, the mayor of Timbuktu Ousmane Hasse reported having heard that the largest library in Timbuktu (Ahmad Baba library) had been torched by fleeing insurgent groups. The news of the destruction of manuscripts spread like wildfire. In reality, the staff of the Ahmad Institute had moved to safety the manuscripts during the crisis. The rebels had burnt a very small number of manuscripts that were being restored at the new building of the Ahmad Baba Institute.
As of February 1, the French troops have re-conquered all the major northern cities of Mali (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal) forcing the rebels to withdraw to the mountains. Nobody knows what the outcome of the present crisis will be, but this much we do know: gone are the days when Sub-Saharan Islam was stereotyped as different and more peaceful.
Ousmane Kane is Alwaleed Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.