Timbuktu, ah, who has not wanted to visit Timbuktu? To Europeans during the scramble for Africa during the late 19th century, it was the image of the exotic, the furthest point from anywhere — out in the desert, that paradoxical thing, an ancient African city. A glance at the map appears to suggest that it is still thus — the inland north-west corner of Africa seems the last genuinely remote place on the planet.

Years ago, when the yearning got too much, I inquired of a travel agent the means to get there. “Well most flights land at the international airport,” I was told.

Yes nowhere is remote anymore, and by that time, Timbuktu had come back from the utter obscurity into which it had fallen, to be a centre of tourism. World Heritage site, city of shrines and mosques in a distinctive style, and a repository of ancient libraries, many of them held in private homes, the unique texts yielding to the torments of the simoom. The South African government, wanting to celebrate the lost glories of African culture, and remind people that it had been a place of universities and study when Paris and London were muddy hamlets, funded a new library to collect the manuscripts. Centralised, climate-controlled, at last the heritage would be secured.

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And then four days ago the radical Islamists torched half the collection, and stole the rest. They were in retreat from a French-Malian force, retaking the north of the country from a number of Islamist groups — two in the beginning, now splintering rapidly.

One, Ansar Dine, is Tuareg, initially part of an alliance with the secular MNLA, fighting for Tuareg autonomy in a country that has denied them such for five decades. Ansar Dine is committed to sharia law and an Islamist order. So too is the other group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and its offshoot, Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’ouest (MUJAO) — but they are also Salafist/Wahhabist, with that sect’s extreme disdain for any form of religious imagery, death memorials, or material outside its narrow tradition — particularly the more open and philosophical Sufi tradition, which was represented in Timbuktu.

The Islamist/Salafist takeover of the Tuareg insurgency has been so comprehensive, with the impromptu rural courts administering executions and amputations, that the MNLA allegedly offered to fight on the side of the Malian government forces, to put them back down. Instead the French were brought/came in, and the Islamist forces were rapidly pushed back.

The offensive has involved forward bombing of a number of Tuareg towns and cities in the north-east, and Timbuktu was hit a few days before the insurgent forces fled, taking out their rage on the library — though it appears that many of the manuscripts had been removed and hidden in the weeks before. Today, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the British would be committing training personnel, though no actual combat troops, to the region.

The Mali crisis has come so fast that few people have had a chance to roll out their standard positions. But it is not merely the rapidity of the situation, but also the complexity of it that is stumping everyone. By and large the neo-cons have left off the whole thing — it’s a nasty piece of colonial tidying up with none of the heroic photo opportunities of last decade’s wars. The principals are a “socialist” Francois Hollande, and a man most neo-cons regard as a socialist anyway, David Cameron. Cameron has spoken of the engagement as being part of a process lasting “generations” — and then sent a bunch of trainers, rather than actual troops.

“Which cultural treasures would it be worth becoming involved in a regional situation for?”

The al-Qaeda/Salafists themselves, as a map in Africa Confidential shows, have already been pushed to the corners of the country. Most are ring-ins from Algeria, and have no base or support within the local population.

Sections of the Left would like to run the argument that the Mali insurgency is a knock-on from the Libyan revolution/civil war, and is part of the unintended consequences of intervention. But the Mali uprising began when Tuaregs left Libya after Gaddafi’s defeat, when the army positions he had given them disappeared. True enough, but nearly everyone supported the idea of Gaddafi being overthrown, and the Tuaregs would have departed, with weapons, even if the Libyans had done it on their own. Furthermore, the problem wasn’t the Tuareg uprising itself, since the forces appear to have been seizing sufficient territory to force the Malian government to the bargaining table over an autonomy deal. It was AQIM and then MUJAO that made a push south.

The Mali intervention is taking on the same character as Tony Blair’s Sierra Leone intervention did in the late 1990s, when the capital, Freetown, was threatened by a lethal “insurgency” group, long since degenerated into a gang. The move gained consent through strategic silence, since the alternative was so appalling no one wanted to contemplate it. Today, Freetown is about the only place Blair could get a hero’s welcome that he hasn’t paid for.

Yet the destruction of the library at Timbuktu reminds one that some sort of position on a collective response to al-Qaeda/Salafist groups is going to have to be worked out afresh. Harsh as it may sound, wars and massacres may or may not demand some form of collective involvement; the claim for involvement on behalf of a range of human cultural possessions is rather stronger, due to their irreplaceable nature and their collective ownership by humanity.

The Salafist groups are not the only group to wantonly destroy great treasures. The British and Germans attacked each others’ great heritage cities as a deliberate tactic of demoralisation in World War II; the Nazis demolished Warsaw and would have done the same to Paris. The Americans let the National Museum of Iraq be looted, and treated ancient sites such as Babylon and other digs as little more than car parks.

But wanton as much of that is, the Salafists’ belief that they must destroy everything that represents, well, anything, is in another league, and may pose a real dilemma in the future. Which cultural treasures would it be worth becoming involved in a regional situation for? Which ones would it essentially be a crime not to defend? Would that ever figure in a calculus of intervention that is overwhelmingly guided by interests?

It’s a long time since things have been as far away as Timbuktu. We are all close now, with a small stock of common possessions that testify to a human history, and the question of what we owe to the past in the name of the future.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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