(The National Post, 3 October 2015)
For the first time since it was founded by the UN in the 1940s, the International Criminal Court at The Hague has charged an individual with vandalizing historical sites - a sign, perhaps, of a serious attempt to fight the appalling rise in the destruction of ancient monuments.
The court plans to try Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for participating in the willful destruction of nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, Mali. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 30 years.
The damage occurred after foreign al-Qaida soldiers and local militants invaded northern Mali in 2012 and set up a form of government and an Islamic court dedicated to enforcing the iron laws of sharia. In 2013, French troops and UN peacekeepers drove out the invaders. After the restored Republic of Mali asked the court to investigate crimes committed on its territory, the chief prosecutor of the court, Fatou Bensouda, decided that criminal acts had indeed been committed and that al-Faqi was responsible. An international arrest warrant was issued and last week and the neighbouring Republic of Niger turned him over to officials in The Hague.
The whole city of Timbuktu is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, which gives the court a claim that any damage to it is significant. Today Timbuktu is a poor desert outpost, a victim of desertification. Most structures are made of earth compacted into bricks. But seven centuries ago, it was a city of legend and mystery, at once famous and unknown.
European explorers dreamt of getting there but were so often frustrated that the word "Timbuktu" went into the English language as a synonym for "somewhere" or "far away." In the 14th century, Timbuktu was a busy trading centre, rich and cultured, with universities and schools that attracted Muslim students from across Africa. The University of Sankoré, which had 25,000 students, was known for its Islamic jurists, astronomers and mathematicians. The Emperor Musa I, head of the Mali Empire, made his legendary pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with a procession of 60,000 men, including 12,000 slaves. His 80 camels carried sacks of gold, which the emperor gave to the poor wherever he stopped. When he returned to Timbuktu, he commissioned the huge Djinguereber Mosque, which alone would make the city culturally notable. It still stands, only slightly marked by the Islamists who did so much damage elsewhere in the city.
Men of importance in Timbuktu's history are treated as saints by many of the people. The mausoleums are their shrines. According to legend, the city had 333 saints. In Timbuktu, Muslims mix the Qur'an with locally generated superstitions in ways that radical Muslims consider heresy. Like Islamic State soldiers in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida's followers consider it their religious duty to destroy every symbol of blasphemy.
The charge against al-Faqi says he was involved in the Islamic court set up by the invaders. It says he was head of the Hesbah (morality police), assigned to execute the decisions of the invaders. He's charged with being a "zealous member" of Ansar Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"), a Tuareg extremist militia with links to al-Qaida. During the occupation, the invaders not only destroyed mosques and 14 of the city's 16 mausoleums, they also burned tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.
When al-Faqi appeared in court on Wednesday, he said he was from "the al-Ansar Tuareg tribe." He was born, he said, "about 40 years ago," 100 km west of Timbuktu. He graduated from the Timbuktu teachers' institute and worked as a civil servant in the Mali education department. A Tuareg is a form of Berber, part of the nomadic population in central Africa. Tuaregs have rebelled against the Mali government several times in recent decades. The International Criminal Court has been asked to investigate the Islamic State's destruction of an ancient site in Palmyra, Syria. Once launched on the al-Faqi case, it may well decide to go deeper into this field. That can only serve humanity by directing more attention to these far-reaching crimes. We are all owners of ancient monuments, as we are all owners of history. Destroying monuments for religious reasons harms the destroyers as well as everyone else. It hardens their belief that there's only one authentic faith and only one way of expressing it. Progress depends on the opposite. Curiosity flowers when many ideas about divinity are tolerated.
Religious freedom implies freedom of all kinds and encourages every form of innovation. Those who destroy religious monuments are destroying the hope of a better life for everyone.