Burning Old Books

The burning of the Ahmad Baba library in Timbuktu last week confirms what was already distressingly clear, the profound hostility of salafi-jihadi insurgents to culture of any form other than of the most primitive and supposedly proto-Islamic simplicity. The latter is of course a thoroughly modern construct, the self-referential elaboration of ideologically driven puritans; but it is all too real.

Fortunately it seems that the almost total destruction of the Ahmad Baba Centre’s two libraries as first reported was in fact much less than total. A Mali expert I spoke to in London last week assured me that the majority of the manuscripts had at least been photographed and microfilmed, so that their content, if not their substance, was safe. And Dr Shahid Matthee of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, which did much of the microfilming, reports in the Sunday Telegraph that in fact some 95% of the manuscripts themselves survived, having been spirited away to private homes, well  before the fire was set by the retreating gangsters of Ansar al-Dine.

For this survival we must be grateful. The towns of the Sahara’s southern shore, Timbuktu, Gao, Awdaghast, were the ports from which trade in gold, slaves and scholarship sailed north across the sand sea, and back to which the latter flowed. Timbuktu itself, far-flung outpost of Morocco’s empire from the days of Ahmad al-Mansour was, above all in the decades before the Moroccan conquest of 1579, a great centre of learning. Its scholars and libraries were famous across Africa and the Muslim world. The burning of Timbuktu’s books, like the destruction of its maraboutic shrines and the suppression of its music, are an attack on history. Islamic and secular history mean nothing to the nihilistic burners of books (the libraries contained Qur’ans, devotional works and digests of Islamic law, all cheerfully consigned to the flames). Perhaps the thugs with the zippo lighters  had in mind the apocryphal barbarism of Amr ibn al-‘As, who is supposed to have torched the library at Alexandria (though he did no such thing) with the quip that anything in it that was not in the Qu’ran was irreligious; and anything that was, was superfluous.

Timbuktu, as Dr Mathee points out, is testimony to the maturity of African cultures, to the long and patient tradition of scholarship, exegesis and imagination that made Timbuktu one of the great centres of the Islamic world. It gave, and still gives, the lie to those who suggest that Africa could not in pre-colonial times produce a literate and literary culture of significance. At Timbuktu it did just this, and the deliberate attempt to extirpate the African past is an act not just of historical nihilism, a poisonous Year-Zeroism; but also a statement of profound racial contempt by non-Africans towards Africans. This too is modern.

Because of course the fuglemen of salafi-jihadism are not, by and large, black Africans. Reports from the liberated towns of central Mali tell of sharia judgements given by judges who needed translation into Punjabi and Arabic, and penalties visited on the black Bambara, Songhai and Bella people by foreigners, Arab, Tunisian, Moroccan, Pakistani and (‘foreign’ or not) Tuareg. This is the tragedy of Mali, the post-colonial racial antagonisms which open up crevices into which malign ideologies can insinuate themselves.

The British know little of Mali and the Sahel, and we need generally to turn to French commentators for wisdom. That’s why Olivier Roy, writing an excellent article, The Intervention Trap, for the New Statesman this week (1st-7th February) is so valuable. His piece brings French insight  to a British intellectual marketplace that is all too ready to accept simplistic  narratives. Not that, as Roy makes clear, the French educated public is much better – and with less excuse.

Roy questions whether Mali really is threatened by ‘Islamic terrorism,’ analyzing the term and the concept carefully to demonstrate the intellectual laziness it enshrines, and the convenient conflation of enemies that war against an abstract noun allows. “Simply put,” he says, “al-Qaeda is parasitic upon local conflicts, which have their own logic, and tries to radicalize them in an anti-western direction so as to lure the west into the trap of intervention.” He is quite clear that failure to distinguish between the “small bands of international jihadis operating in the Sahel,” connected to the territory in which they operate only by fleeting opportunism; and the indigenous separatist movements, is disastrous – not only in making negotiation with the latter more difficult, but also in legitimising the discriminatory and often racist policies and actions of post-colonial African governments. “Al-Qaeda would,” writes Roy, “lose much of its potency if the local forces it takes advantage of could be persuaded that they have no reason to protect it.” He roots this in a very clear statement of the post-colonial nature of the conflicts that Al-Qaeda seeks, which it then hollows out and eats up from the inside: “Despite the moralizing, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategizing (the West against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return: in this instance how to deal with the indifference of certain states to legitimate and negotiable political demands. The answer is to do proper politics – and that is particularly true when you are going to war.”

Not to be forgotten, and not successfully erased by incendiary barbarism, is the lesson Timbuktu holds for the world: “What Timbuktu’s manuscripts disprove” – Mathee – “is the old European idea that Africans are incapable of intellectual work – of reading, writing and scholarly endeavour.” That, and the profound ignorance of religious primitivism, are no reason to go burning books.


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