IT’S been one of those surreal weeks. In one part of the world, scientists celebrated the discovery of the ‘God particle’ as a gateway to a new era of knowledge and exploration, unlocking age-old mysteries to make our lives more complete and more interesting; in another, fanatic extremists destroyed some of humanity’s most cherished cultural and religious relics in Timbuktu, making the world a poorer and less tolerant place.
The fact that both events happened only hours apart, is no real surprise: we live in a complicated, complex and topsy-turvy world. The gap between knowledge and ignorance is widening. Some countries are getting more prosperous, succeeding in helping millions of people to climb out of poverty. Others languish at the bottom of the ladder, unable to provide the basics to their unfortunate citizens.
Education and progress are prized in some nations. Ignorance and obscurantism dominate in others. Great strides in science compete for attention with racism, discrimination and fanaticism. Noble people occupy the same space as villains and criminals. Extremism and tolerance coexist as do democracy and dictatorships. Corrupt men and women live side by side with philanthropists.
Like many others I was fascinated by the discovery of the ‘God particle’ by scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) and struggled to understand the details of the breakthrough. Only hours before I had lamented — along with many others —the destruction by the armed group Ansar Dine of the shrines of Muslim saints in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali.
I have to confess that Timbuktu has a special place in my heart. Not because I have been there — but because even as a child the name of the city stirred my very active imagination. I had other favourite city names: Baku, Almaty (city of apples), Tashkent, Dushanbe, Muscat, Toledo, Granada, Kathmandu … exotic, fascinating, far away. Perhaps to be visited one day…. But Timbuktu stuck in my mind like none other. Frankly, I did not even know where it was. But it did not matter. Timbuktu was mythical, legendary and magical.
I was moved by the legends of the fabled city of gold, drawn into the images of romance and adventure associated with a town perched on the edge of the Sahara desert. As the BBC points out, although Timbuktu today pretty much lives up to its reputation as ‘the end of the world’, once upon a time, it was the centre of important trade routes. Muslim merchants took gold north from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East and returned with salt and other goods. This trade made the city enormously wealthy.
Timbuktu was also a great Islamic centre. For hundreds of years what made it really special was that Timbuktu was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews, gaining renown as a centre of religious and racial tolerance. But by the 16th and 17th centuries, the ‘city of 333 saints’ began its long descent. Today, they tell me, it is a desolate and impoverished town — renowned for its heat and isolation. That is exactly why Ansar Dine decided to strike, demolishing the shrines of saints which they denounce as idolatrous and sacrilegious.
The rampage and destruction has triggered worldwide condemnation. For many, it is a tragic re-run of the way in which Taliban extremists in the 1990s destroyed the historical statues of Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Once again, as they did in Afghanistan, extremists and fanatics have been allowed to wreak havoc with priceless examples of the history of humanity and human civilisation.
Like the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine, extremists who in recent years have attacked Sufi shrines in Pakistan also claim to be defending the purity of their version of Islam. Attacks against Sufi shrines by hardline Salafists have also occurred in Egypt and Libya in the past year as well as in Iraq.
The campaign of destruction in Timbuktu is meant to obliterate a part of the history of Islam in Africa which includes a centuries-old message of tolerance. It also highlights the extremists’ loathing and fear of Sufism which they see as a threat to their fanatic views.
It may seem ironic to worry about the destruction of historical relics when suicide bombs kill hundreds and extremists threaten the existence of others.
Why worry about shrines when millions still live in poverty, go hungry and have no access to adequate food or clean water? Quite simply because history and culture matter — and they matter very much.
Nations that do not celebrate their past, cannot be enthusiastic about the future. Around the world, people flock to museums and art galleries to be inspired and transported to another world. Museums remind us of our past greatness, the power and weakness of our ancestors, their hopes and aspirations.
Countries that take great pride in their past happily spend millions of dollars on maintaining their museums in good shape. In other countries, museums are sad and dilapidated places. But even amid the dust and the dirt, I have always seen eager men, women and children celebrating the lives and loves of their ancestors.
The world has always been a diverse and mixed-up place where people of different religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations have lived together, sometimes peacefully and sometimes at war. Ansar Dine and their Taliban brothers are not just seeking to impose their version of Islam, they also want people to forget their rich and diverse past. I believe they will not win. Extremists and fanatics may strike fear in peoples’ hearts through their campaign of violence and intimidation. But people also need to sing and dance — to celebrate life and to bow in admiration before the heroes and heroines of the past.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.