During recent weeks, historic, cultural, and religious sites in Timbuktu have been destroyed. Thousands of refugees have been displaced fleeing the harsh imposition of Sharia law, including lashings in the streets. President Obama has authorized the use of up to $10 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to “respond to the unexpected and urgent refugee and migration needs resulting from the conflict in northern Mali. The emergency funds will be used to provide lifesaving protection and assistance to those fleeing the conflict. According to the National Security Council (NSC), there are almost 230,000 Malian refugees who have fled to Algeria, Burkino Faso, Mauritania and Niger, while additional Malians are internally displaced. “We strongly condemn the attacks against civilians in northern Mali, as well as the reported destruction and looting of religious, historical and cultural sites in Timbuktu,” said a statement from the NSC.
The United States is calling on all parties to support the restoration of democratically elected civilian governance in Mali as soon as possible, specifically asking that the interim government issue its road map for elections without delay so that preparations can begin in earnest. The U.S. reiterates a call for the military-led National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy (NCRD) to refrain from any interference in political matters, and calls on the rebel groups in northern Mali to renounce any connection with terrorist groups and enter into legitimate political negotiations. In addition, the U.S. urges all parties to ensure neutral, impartial and unhindered humanitarian access to all populations in northern Mali.
The United States continues to support the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in its mediation efforts and will continue to consult with ECOWAS and other regional stakeholders on the best way to facilitate the political transition and restore peace and security across Mali.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has received reports of killings, abductions, rapes and conscription of children. “I have instructed my office to immediately proceed with a preliminary examination of the situation to assess whether the criteria for opening an investigation are fulfilled,” said ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
Gambian attorney Fatou Bensouda is the first woman and African to assume the office of Chief Prosecutor in the International Criminal Court, after serving as a Deputy Prosecutor in charge of the Prosecutions Division of the ICC since 2004. She received a request from the Mali Minister of Justice that the ICC investigate “the situation in Mali since January 2012”. She also received a request from the ECOWAS Contact Group of Mali (composed of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria and Togo) to “launch the necessary inquiries in order to identify the perpetrators of these war crimes and to initiate the necessary legal proceedings against them”.
Bensouda has stressed that “the deliberate destruction of shrines of Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu may constitute a war crime”. According to a formal statement issued from her office, “The Government of Mali submits that the Malian courts are unable to prosecute or try the perpetrators”.
The ICC is the first permanent world court established to try those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is currently investigating 15 cases in seven African countries.
Established as a trading post, Timbuktu, known as an important center of Islamic learning during the 15th and 16th centuries, is currently experiencing destruction of its cultural heritage. Timbuktu’s mausoleums and mosques are designated as World Heritage sites. Private libraries contain ancient libraries of rare 13th century writings by Timbuktu theologians who critically examined Islam’s founding holy text.
The Tuareg people are Berbers who established Timbuktu as part of their trans-Sahara trade in goods. Over the centuries, they have struggled for control of the region. During the past couple of decades, Mali became a stable African democracy. Not satisfied with the Mali central government, the Tuareg (in the north) rebelled earlier this year. Sympathetic, Mali’s army installed a junta and later a civilian government. During the process, the Tuareg partnered with strict Islamists, who have rested control of the north from the Tuareg. While Muammar Gadaffi was known for spreading money and largess throughout Africa, he also trained Africans from across the continent in his army. Many of the Mali Islamists had spent time in Gadaffi’s army. When Gadaffi fell, his arsenals were raided. Weaponry from Gadaffi’s Libya found its way back to Mali, and is being used to terrorize the population of the north. With Gadaffi gone, the international community is investigating who is financing the strict Islamists.
The current crisis is exacerbated by a declaration of independence of northern Mali from the rest of the country. Neither other African countries nor the world community recognize the declaration.
The Tuareg, who practice Sufism, a mystical form of African Islam that focuses on spiritual development and a metaphysical interpretation of the Qu’ran, mistakenly thought they could partner with fundamental Salafism originating in Saudi Arabia. The Salafists have made public their intentions to install Sharia over the region.
The current attacks on Mali’s historical sites are nothing new. The destruction of ancient sites in Timbuktu is reminiscent of the 2001 bombing of 6th century giant statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan. The Sufi strain of Islam in Mali that revers the ancient Timbuktu tombs of Muslim saints is seen as idolatry and outright heresy by zealous puritanical Islam. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked because they were seen as political idols.
Though the vast majority of the world’s 1.5 billion adherents of Islam are peaceful, an extremist form of Islam believes it is doing what Prophet Mohammad would do, and did do to impose Islam. When Mecca-born Muhammad received his revelation, he sought to spread the message. The pre-Islam Meccans practiced polytheism. After a series of rejections, Muhammad retreated to Medina, gathered an army 10,000 strong, then went back to conquer Mecca. During the process, Muhammad destroyed any and all pagan idols and symbols of pre-Islam in Mecca. To this day, extremist believers follow Muhammad’s example of destruction of any culture considered infidels, or nonbelievers. Throughout history, nonbelievers were forced to submit on the pain of death, or made to pay a special tax.
The violent imposition of Sharia in northern Mali has garnered world attention. The territory is viewed with caution. It is suspected that the region will be used as sanctuary for others who seek to train and mobilize to spread Sharia throughout neighboring Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. If the violence spreads south, the capital city of Bamako could fall, taking all of Mali with it. There is fear that insurgents could attempt to spread Sharia far north across the Mediterranean into Europe.