It is believed that Islamist factions, including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now control two-thirds of Mali, West Africa’s largest country. Since ousting the secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the northern third of the country in the past few months, these barbaric groups have gone on the rampage. Not only do they hope to impose Sharia Law on the helpless Malian populace but the terrorists seemingly wish to destroy any traces of Malian history and with it the Malian national identity.
History and nationalism go hand in hand. A state cannot have a unified national identity if its people do not share a distinct history. The history of Mali happens to be particularly rich and is of national, regional and international significance. This rich heritage is symbolised by Timbuktu, the legendary commercial hub of 13th century Africa where gold, ivory and knowledge were shared freely between traders and scholars alike. Ansar Dine and its vile cohorts have since reduced a substantial amount of the desert city to ruins, willingly destroying many of its sacred libraries and mosques where some of the rarest and greatest work of Islamic scholars have long resided.
The destruction of cultural and historical icons is a trait of Al-Qaeda and its many affiliated groups. One need only think of the Taliban’s gleeful destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or Al-Shabab’s desecration of Sufi graves and monuments in Somalia to recognise that anything deemed anathema to the warped principles of these groups is under threat of annihilation.
Many would argue that thethreat posed by Al-Qaeda and its associates to human life is of far greater concern. Islamic terrorists have shown themselves extremely capable of indiscriminate massacre and torture of innocent civilians. The destruction of history, however, is of equal significance. Should the process of radical Islamisation in Mali not be be reversed soon, children will grow up unaware that they are part of the same nation as their counterparts in distant parts of the country. They will become enemies by default, oblivious to their shared heritage and civilisation and their victories over unscrupulous colonial powers.
The African Union, with aid from international partners, hopes to launch an attack against Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in Mali in the coming weeks. Let us hope that they do not procrastinate further for the future of a nation and a heritage that ought to be shared with the world is at stake. There may be no oil in the ground, but the dusty tomes in Timbuktu’s libraries and the terracotta figurines of the great Mali Empire are of equal, if not greater importance, to the destiny of mankind.