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Islamists destroy Timbuktu heritage sites: Why are these targets?

Ansar Dine, the Islamist militia that shares control of Mali's north, is just the latest in long line of zealots of many faiths who destroyed the monuments of other faiths thought to be superstitious. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / July 2, 2012

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on June 30, 2012 in front of shocked locals, witnesses said.

REUTERS/Adama Diarra

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When Islamist militants began this week to destroy ancient tombs of some of Mali’s most famous poets and Sufic teachers, they claimed that they were doing the work of God.

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“We’re going to destroy everything before we apply Shariah in this city,” Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Abu Mohamed told the Associated Press on Sunday in the ancient city of Timbuktu.

According to Ansar Dine – a relatively small militant group that shares control of much of northern Mali with other rebel groups and shares the theological outlook of Al Qaeda – the tombs had to be destroyed because “the population loves the saints like God.”

Today’s Ansar Dine, of course, is just the latest in a long line of religious dogmatists who came to town and destroyed stuff in the name of God.

In 1192 AD, the Turkic commander Qutbuddin Aynak destroyed a number of Hindu temples near present day New Delhi to provide building stone for his self-named Qutb Minar. To this day, Hindu nationalists point to this act as an example of Islam's intolerance of other faiths. Yet some scholars, notably Buddhists, contend that Hindus had done similar work with the defunct temples of their Buddhist rivals.

Roman historians documented how Christian rulers ordered the destruction of pagan temples, and reportedly, the Library of Alexandria itself in 391 AD. During the Spanish Reconquista, Roman Catholic rulers razed many Islamic prayer halls, although, to their credit, they did leave many magnificent Moorish structures, such as the university at Alhambra, standing.  

More recently, of course, the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddhist statues in the Afghan central province of Bamiyan in March 2001. “All we are breaking are stones," the Taliban leader told reporters in Kandahar at the time, adding, "my job is the implementation of Islamic order."

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