French troops, as well as accompanying African troops, liberated the city of Timbuktu in Mali after less than a year of its occupation by the Tuareg tribes which handed it over to the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
During the liberation operation of the city, “Islamic” groups, which are more Salafi and Jihadi than AQIM, began denouncing what it considered a return of colonization. They cite the great wealth in Mali, foremost gold, which is present in huge amounts, and the precious Uranium Mountains whose resources without which power plants do not function, as the reason behind the West’s involvement in the country. Some reports mentioned that underneath the soft sand of the African desert huge amounts of petroleum are to be found.
Although yellow gold was mentioned a lot in “Ali Baba,” “Sinbad” and “One Thousand and One Nights” tales, the modern Arab links wealth only with black gold-oil.
Therefore, the French and African armies came for the fortunes, mainly the petroleum along with everything else. So the story has become “colonial” par excellence. But the question which must be immediately deplored is; if Mali has all these fortunes, why is it considered one of the poorest countries in the world and Africa?
Mali’s poverty standards
It is no secret that Mali has the lowest rank on the Human Development Index, 178. Individual income often does not exceed 600 dollars despite reserves of gold and petroleum. It is surprising that the country has all this poverty although its area exceeds a million kilometer squared and its population is a little more than 14 million. This makes Mali about four times bigger than Japan where the population is numbered at around one tenth of that in the African country. However, Mali is plagued with misery represented undeveloped political systems, other primitive economic systems and a social system which has not yet emerged from the medieval era. Mali’s wealth of gold, coral, and ruby - which fictionally flourished in Ali Baba’s treasure cave – is instead a sign of miserable poverty.
Timbuktu is, despite its small area and low population of under half a million, considered by the standards of Mali as one of the biggest and most important cities. Actually, it is one of the most prominent cities and is more famous than the capital, Bamako, for the simple reason that it is one of the superpower metropolises of Islamic culture in central and western Africa. For several historical and geographical reasons, the city has become one of the Islamic culture’s hubs in that region of the world. There is a university full of learners and an educational institute packed with rare Islamic manuscripts. These are considered by the residents of the city as part of their historical heritage and as a part of their identity where knowledge and jurisprudence coalesce with God’s righteous guardians.
The influx of extremism
But the “Berbers” came to the city. Malian authorities failed to deal with minorities’ problems and failed to establish a ruling system that caters to the minorities, both religious and ethnic. Mali simply failed in dealing with the issue of the Tuareg tribes which run the North of the country and amount to 10% of the population. But now they are no longer the way they were. The Arab Spring has made democracy issues coalesce with those of division and fragmentation. The “soldiers” did not have the sensitivity to deal with complicated issues; they preferred to stage a coup rather than negotiating and resolving crises. The end result was that the Tuareg invaded Timbuktu. After the Tuareg, al-Qaeda groups entered to guide the Islamic country in its own special way. This transformed the country into a copy of the “cultured” state of the Afghan under the ruling of the Taliban.
The New York Times narrated the entire story when al-Qaeda groups or others affiliated with AQIM, came on board vehicles equipped with arms and gathered the city’s people to enforce their new “Islamic” constitution. It was a surprising thing in a city where Islam has never been strange to its people. The issue sounded like there was someone who wanted to sell water the minute it started to rain. People did not understand how Islamic instructions can be handed out under the threat of arms and terrorization. One of the strange things said is that al-Qaeda groups sealed a deal with the city’s hospital to treat their patients and their injured and give medical advice whenever they request it in exchange for allowing healthcare for the people of Timbuktu. It was not long before doctors at the hospital were called in to amputate hands of those randomly accused of stealing and stone those accused of adultery in a city where Islamic traditions of chastity were known throughout its entire history. The whole thing was absurd because doctors, when they learnt how to do their job, learnt how to re-attach severed limbs and make sure the limbs were not fully detached in some cases.
This was a story, narrated in an American newspaper, on what happened in Timbuktu. The story had a heroic side too. The people of the city, amid the attacks of terror, rape and murder, succeeded in smuggling 28,000 manuscripts out of 30,000 from the educational institute which the “Jihadi” group burnt to ashes before it fled the city as the French shelling began.
Liberating Timbuktu may have been a step in the long process of understanding the new wave of extremism sweeping the region under the banner of Islam. A wave, the true religion is innocent of.
This article was published on Al Sharq al-Awsat on Feb. 6, 2013.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.