What the Islamist Takeover of Northern Mali Really Means
Until a few weeks ago, Al Farouk, the patron djinn of Timbuktu, protected the ancient city in northern Mali. For centuries, from astride a winged horse in center of the city, the stone genie kept watch over the houses so that children didn’t sneak out at night. Legend had it that if Al Farouk caught you getting up to anything naughty, he’d warn you the first two times. If he nabbed you a third time, you’d disappear forever.
Now Al Farouk has disappeared. On June 30, days after UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, placed the city of Timbuktu on its list of endangered historical sites, Al Farouk’s statue was beheaded by a man called Abu Zaar. “People thought Al Farouk was the saint protector of the city,” he told French television. Abu Zaar belongs to Ansar al Dine, Defenders of the Faith, a militant group that recently seized control of Northern Mali and has aligned itself with Al Qaeda’s main franchise in Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Abu Zaar said, “There’s only one protector. That’s us.”
Over the past two weeks, men in open jeeps with fluttering black flags have rolled up on many of Timbuktu’s 333 holy sites and taken pick axes to the ancient mud-hewn shrines. Since the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, Timbuktu’s holy sites are the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites to be systematically destroyed. This parallel is no accident. Like their Afghan precursors who aimed at erasing Buddhism’s long history in Afghanistan, the members of Ansar al Dine claim that decimating many the holy sites of Timbuktu is a matter of religious “cleansing.” Knocking down mud walls is their way to wipe Sufi religious history off of the African continent.