Conflict & Justice

Mali Islamist rebels begin destruction of historic Djingareyber mosque


A still from a video shows Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1, 2012.



Salafist rebels are destroying the ancient city of Timbuktu, ignoring wide-spead international outrage over the destruction of Mali's most revered cultural icons. In a move that evokes images of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, the al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group has smashed two tombs at the iconic mud Djingareyber mosque, according to a BBC report. 

"They say they will destroy everything," an onlooker to the destruction told AFP today. According to BBC and AFP reports, the militants have barred approach to the mosque, and are enforcing control with firearms. 

Last week, Ansar Dine militants broke the door of the 15th century Sidi Yahia mosque, one of Timbuktu's three iconic centers of Muslim worship. Before the incident, the door had not been opened for centuries.

Ansar Dine's Salafist beliefs don't allow for the veneration of saints, says the BBC. The group rose to power in Mali on March 22, after a military coup left government affairs in disarray, allowing them to take over the Tuareg rebellion.

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A popular tourist destination before violence broke out, UNESCO recently put the monuments on its most-endangered list, responding to pleas of help from Malians. According to Al Jazeera, leaders from the regional Economic Community of West African States have called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the monument's destruction as a possible war crime.

The ICC acknowledges a war crime designation for these acts of destruction is possible, says the Al Jazeera report - although Ansar Dine has stated that it "does not recognize" either the UN or the ICC's authority. 

Timbuktu has a long and storied past with Islam, according to UNESCO's website. The North African city served as a repository of Islamic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries, helping to foster the spread of Islam throughout the continent. 

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Ansar Dine, led by Omar Hamaha, has moved to the front of Mali's ethnic Tuareg rebellion, reports Time - although he is an ethnic Arab. 

”It’s forbidden by Islam to pray on tombs and ask for blessings,” Hamaha told Time, explaining why he supports the wholesale destruction of Timbuktu's most important monuments. 

"Ansar Eddine is showing the rest of world, especially Western countries, that whether they want it or not, we will not let the younger generation believe in shrines as God, regardless of what the U.N., UNESCO, International Criminal Court or ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] have to say," Hamaha said.

"We do not recognize these organizations. The only thing we recognize is the court of God, shar’ia. Shar’ia is a divine obligation, people don’t get to choose whether they like it or not.”