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Published on July 7th, 2012 | by Harry Evans
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] Djenne mud mosque and market, Timbuktu © 10b travelling[/caption]   Timbuktu has been the victim of cultural vandalism over the past week. For several days, the historic Malian city has suffered attacks to significant landmarks, which hold religious importance to local Muslims. The belligerents have been extremist Muslims, who have taken control of Timbuktu, and much of North Mali, seeking to impose strict Sharia law on the region. Ansar Dine, who currently have Timbuktu in their control, are one piece of a dangerous narrative for Mali. The country is currently splintered among different forces and is part of a central African struggle that has seen calls for international intervention. Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) are a militant Islamist group that seek to convert Mali to an organised theocracy. They have links with al-Qaeda and believe that the local Sufi Muslims are committing heresy by worshipping saints. As a result, Ansar Dine have been destroying shrines to saints that the Islamists believe are breaking divine law. A spokesman told the BBC that the group would not stop until every shrine in Timbuktu was destroyed. The local Sufi population has been forced to stand and watch this religious iconoclasm but little can be done to prevent Ansar Dine's wanton destruction. The situation is not isolated, and Mali has been incredibly volatile for many years. Ansar Dine is a part of a long and complex modern history that took a twist in March when a democratically elected President was ousted by the military. The coup itself occurred due to a poor campaign against the rebels in the North (of which Ansar Dine form part), which was seen to be the fault of the civilian government. A part of the military led a junta that was dissatisfied with the running of the conflict. The conflict itself is only partly to do with religious divisions and it has been relatively unknown to what extent the rebels have been supported by radical Islamists. The main source of agitation has been secular, as the North has been claimed by a group of nomads called the 'Tuareg'. The separatist movement of the Tuareg have created the 'National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad' (MNLA), which is attempting to form a breakaway state. It has recently become clear that this primarily secular rebellion has been joined by Ansar Dine, but the two maintain thoroughly different aims. This is why the violence in Timbuktu has been perceived so prominently in the media. Aside from the shock of such cultural barbarism, there is also the worry of an Islamist faction, with links to al-Qaeda, controlling an area of Saharan Africa the size of France. The new development is understandably worrying, and the international reaction has been quick. A group of central African states met in the Ivory Coast to agree on plans of action for intervening and stabilising Mali. The plans, however, would require funding from UN nations and this has been rejected without more concrete pledges. The motivation to do something decisive is there. Especially because the Tuareg are dispersed through the region, and are not confined to Mali. Full independence for the MNLA could be destabilising for the tenuous peace of central African nations, and it is in their interest to restore law and order to Northern Mali. The loss of Timbuktu was a great one, but it is not as permanent as the loss of architectural artefacts. The marriage of interests between the Tuareg and Ansar Dine has broken down, as tensions between the MNLA and Islamist forces erupted. This is a rapid progression. Months ago, Islamist interests were barely accounted for in Mali. Now, Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups appear to have firm control over most of Northern Mali. They are better funded than the MNLA and, worryingly, there are rumours that they have been reinforced by Algerian al-Qaeda splinter cells. The interesting development is the method that appears to have been used by Islamist fundamentalists. Spot a long-standing internal war, then move in and back the rebels until there is enough of a foothold to push for a full theocracy, regardless of whether this was an original aim of the rebellion or not. It's not certain that this is the Islamist strategy, but it is a dangerous possibility for central Africa and one that al-Qaeda may aim to replicate elsewhere. Somalia and Sudan may also be suitable candidates for this kind of strategic manoeuvre, and there is a larger list if one looks further afield.

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Trouble in Timbuktu

Djenne mud mosque and market, Timbuktu © 10b travelling

 

Timbuktu has been the victim of cultural vandalism over the past week. For several days, the historic Malian city has suffered attacks to significant landmarks, which hold religious importance to local Muslims. The belligerents have been extremist Muslims, who have taken control of Timbuktu, and much of North Mali, seeking to impose strict Sharia law on the region. Ansar Dine, who currently have Timbuktu in their control, are one piece of a dangerous narrative for Mali. The country is currently splintered among different forces and is part of a central African struggle that has seen calls for international intervention.

Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) are a militant Islamist group that seek to convert Mali to an organised theocracy. They have links with al-Qaeda and believe that the local Sufi Muslims are committing heresy by worshipping saints. As a result, Ansar Dine have been destroying shrines to saints that the Islamists believe are breaking divine law. A spokesman told the BBC that the group would not stop until every shrine in Timbuktu was destroyed. The local Sufi population has been forced to stand and watch this religious iconoclasm but little can be done to prevent Ansar Dine’s wanton destruction.

The situation is not isolated, and Mali has been incredibly volatile for many years. Ansar Dine is a part of a long and complex modern history that took a twist in March when a democratically elected President was ousted by the military. The coup itself occurred due to a poor campaign against the rebels in the North (of which Ansar Dine form part), which was seen to be the fault of the civilian government. A part of the military led a junta that was dissatisfied with the running of the conflict.

The conflict itself is only partly to do with religious divisions and it has been relatively unknown to what extent the rebels have been supported by radical Islamists. The main source of agitation has been secular, as the North has been claimed by a group of nomads called the ‘Tuareg’. The separatist movement of the Tuareg have created the ‘National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’ (MNLA), which is attempting to form a breakaway state. It has recently become clear that this primarily secular rebellion has been joined by Ansar Dine, but the two maintain thoroughly different aims.

This is why the violence in Timbuktu has been perceived so prominently in the media. Aside from the shock of such cultural barbarism, there is also the worry of an Islamist faction, with links to al-Qaeda, controlling an area of Saharan Africa the size of France. The new development is understandably worrying, and the international reaction has been quick. A group of central African states met in the Ivory Coast to agree on plans of action for intervening and stabilising Mali. The plans, however, would require funding from UN nations and this has been rejected without more concrete pledges. The motivation to do something decisive is there. Especially because the Tuareg are dispersed through the region, and are not confined to Mali. Full independence for the MNLA could be destabilising for the tenuous peace of central African nations, and it is in their interest to restore law and order to Northern Mali.

The loss of Timbuktu was a great one, but it is not as permanent as the loss of architectural artefacts. The marriage of interests between the Tuareg and Ansar Dine has broken down, as tensions between the MNLA and Islamist forces erupted. This is a rapid progression. Months ago, Islamist interests were barely accounted for in Mali. Now, Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups appear to have firm control over most of Northern Mali. They are better funded than the MNLA and, worryingly, there are rumours that they have been reinforced by Algerian al-Qaeda splinter cells.

The interesting development is the method that appears to have been used by Islamist fundamentalists. Spot a long-standing internal war, then move in and back the rebels until there is enough of a foothold to push for a full theocracy, regardless of whether this was an original aim of the rebellion or not. It’s not certain that this is the Islamist strategy, but it is a dangerous possibility for central Africa and one that al-Qaeda may aim to replicate elsewhere. Somalia and Sudan may also be suitable candidates for this kind of strategic manoeuvre, and there is a larger list if one looks further afield.

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About the Author

Harry Evans

Harry is a recent Philosophy graduate from the University of York. He is taking a Master’s in European Studies next year at UCL and has a particular interest in Scandinavian politics and economy. His time is currently spent undertaking an internship, researching and writing a history of the University of York Philosophy department. At University, he was editor of the student Philosophy journal, and has been published by the Club of PEP journal. Harry is hoping to make a career in International Relations and Journalism, and writes for Catch21 in this capacity. For more information and updates follow @hevans567 or find him on LinkedIn. You can also read more from this author on their personal blog.



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