Tuaregs, Timbuktu and terrorism

I’m writing about this because I know something about it, which makes a change. I’ve actually been to Timbuktu, the city of 333 saints.

Mud buildings, narrow sandy streets, white sand specked red with coke cans and black with  sunrotted binliners. Tuareg and Bela people, goats, camels and donkeys.

The imposition of strict salafist sharia seemed unlikely to survive, given the open, friendly and music-loving nature of the people I met.  We were invited to a Tuareg wedding we happened to be passing, joining both the women and the men (who were in separate tents). We drank a lot of strong sweet black tea. Now I hear that the people of Timbuktu were cheering the liberating French as the French cheered the Americans and British in Paris in 1944.

I don’t think there’ll be a protracted Afghan style campaign. The Islamists, as they seem to be called in the press, won’t capture hearts and minds, even though Timbuktu’s people are all firmly Muslim. But something must be done to make the peace hold.

It’s a very difficult one. Until a decade or so ago, the Tuareg and Bela people had a traditional slave relationship. The Bela were by heredity slaves to the Tuareg, who could (but usually didn’t) buy and sell their Bela slaves as if they were camels. That’s been abolished by laws passed by the Bamako government, a thousand miles away,  to the satisfaction of the (blacker) Bela people and the irritation of the Tuareg. When we went to our Tuareg wedding, it was a Bela woman who brought in the tea.  Even before its politically-correct abolition, this wasn’t slavery like the plantation-slavery of the Americas. It was wrong, and an unequal relationship, but it was not that different to the other ethnic divisions of labour we’d seen elsewhere in Mali. One group  lived by fishing the Niger, another by milking cows and selling milk; and the Tuareg traded across the Sahara, while the Bela served them.  Northern Mali, the southern edge of the Sahara, is a dry, hostile place. Very little grows apart from cram-cram, a weed with sharp spiny seeds that stick to clothes and skin, and a few miles further north nothing does. The abolition of slavery changed the economics,  not as dramatically as the climate change has done, nor so dramatically as the rise of Islamist violence, and it adversely affected the Tuareg.  Across the Sahel, there is resentment and sometimes conflict between the lighter-skinned Northerners and the darker-skinned southerners. It is the same in Sudan, and as resources are tighter, resentment can turn to conflict.

We were in Timbuktu on our way to the Festival in the Desert, at Essakane, one of the poorest villages in Mali, chosen by the organisers (Bamako-based, but ethnically-Tuareg) not only because of its beautiful location (the festival being in a natural arena of silver dunes) but to help bring tourist income to the village. Leaving Timbuktu for Essakane (about 70km away, three hours in a 4×4 or a day and a night by camel, we passed the Peace Monument, built in 2000 at the end of the last civil war.  Rusty AK47s were set in concrete, put beyond use. The Festival was part of a longer campaign to bring prosperity to the North, and to make the politicians in Bamako aware of how harsh the conditions were.  We endured tedious opening speeches by the Minister of Culture, but we understood the reason; and we were pestered by Tuareg men who wanted to show (and to sell) us their beautiful silver jewellery and leather work. We succumbed early and for the next few days had to explain how we had bought all the jewellery we could afford. But one sale to a Western tourist would make a difference to a Tuareg family for a year. The difference between having enough to eat, and not having enough to eat. We were a major source of income.

The annual Festival in the Desert is no more. Kidnappings, by groups affiliated to AQIM, put a stop to it. No one was kidnapped at Essakane, but at other gatherings it did happen.  It hasn’t been safe enough for westerners to travel to Timbuktu or to Essakane for several years.

Making the region economically viable will be very difficult. Many of the people we spoke to had hopes of rebuilding Timbuktu’s academic reputation, creating there a strong centre for moderate Islamic scholarship to rival the Salafist-dominated schools of Saudi Arabia. In the thirteenth century, the university of Timbuktu was the largest in the world. It grew rich from the caravan trade across the Sahara, trading gold from  the mines to the south to the Muslim Empire. It was a centre of Sufi scholarship; the three hundred and thirty-three saints were Sufi mystics. In its decline, as the caravan route was eclipsed by the sea route and Christian Europe overcame the Muslim Empire, Timbuktu was wracked by a bloody civil war between rival schools of Sufi.

Sufism is considered shirk by the Salafist Muslims, who are strictly Sunni and advocate the killing of any Sufi or Shia. Al Quaeda, financed by Saudi money, promotes extreme Salafism and the associated iconoclasms. I don’t know how much of Timbuktu’s treasures will have survived; it is very unlikely that any of the Sufi shrines will remain, but the great mud mosque should still be there. Everyone is concerned about the city’s famous manuscripts. Many of these are mystic Sufi treatises, and would thus have been vulnerable to Salafist  destruction. We also saw in the museum some astonishingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Holy Qu’ran.

Timbuktu is a very special place, the hub of West Africa’s relationship with Islam. Through Timbuktu, Mali became Muslim.  Its importance is more than historic. If we in the West want to stop the poisonous spread of  extreme Salafism – which is active through Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, we need to be prepared to support alternatives. That means supporting moderate, often Sufi Islam. Unfortunately, all the money behind Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Salafism dominates. There is no counterbalancing  source of money to promote the tolerant versions of Islam with which most Muslims around the world are comfortable.  While Wahabi Salafism remains the dominant force in the richest and most influential part of the Muslim world,  Islam itself is under threat. Sufism was dominant in Afghanistan and Pakistan until the Saudis financed the Taleban, but Afghan society was always very conservative and was thus a much better fit  with Salafism than the much more liberal African society. The Taleban found a popular home there; I do not think that AQIM will find a popular home in Timbuktu.


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