Message from Timbucktu

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TO a child’s inquisitive mind, an answer which included the word ‘Timbuktu’ suggested either an imaginary place, or a euphemism for something distinctly unpleasant, or a polite way of saying, ‘Mind your own business!’

But the growing child was soon to discover that Timbuktu is real enough, a city poised at a major crossroads in the vast spaces of north Africa. Some months ago, the north of Mali was overrun by two insurgents groups who humiliated the Mali army.

Now, the Tuaregs, and their one-time allies, the Ansar Dine, a violent group with links to Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda are engaged in bitter conflict.

The Ansar Dine have seized the city of Timbuktu and have begun the systematic destruction of historic treasures.

The historic treasures in question are the tombs of Sufi saints, erected in memory of outstanding adherents of the Sufi strain of Islam. The tombs are among Africa’s most treasured monuments and, like our own Giant’s Causeway, enjoyed World Heritage status.

But members of Ansar Dine, who follow the Salafist strain of Islam, regard such tombs as idolatrous, and view their destruction as being ‘ divinely ordained’. Outrage has been expressed by many observers, but mere words are unlikely to prevent further devastation.

Such displays of intolerance litter history. Political victors strive to erase all memory of their predecessors. Joseph Stalin, not content to produce his own edited account of Russian history, destroyed many churches, purveyors of ‘the opiate of the people’.

When in A.D. 642 (or shall we call it 642 C.E.?) the great Muslim leader, the Caliph Omar, captured Alexandria, one of the world’s greatest libraries fell into his hands.

It contained 700,000 manuscripts, many of them beyond price, and preserving the learning of the ancient world. At his command, the library was burned, because, he reasoned, “If this learning is in the Koran, it is unnecessary; it is it not, it is pernicious, and should be burned.”

The manuscripts were distributed to the 4,000 baths in the city, and provided fuel for the furnaces for more than six months!

But Christianity has not been free from such intolerance. When Henry VIII defied the authority of the Pope, many of England’s monasteries were pillaged. Over a century later, Oliver Cromwell’s troops, driven by the warning of the second commandment against graven images, stripped many of England’s most beautiful cathedrals of statues and images.

In one of Chesterton’s poems, he wrote, “Tis only Christian men guard even heathen things.”

He may have had a rosy view of past Christian behaviour, but he was right in suggesting the duty to respect the things which are sacred to those who differ from us.

Were that lesson to be learned, much heartache would be spared, and we might all learn to enjoy the ‘marching season’, without fears of riot and confrontation.