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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 12    Issue 21   16 - 30 April 2018

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Mastermind of Timbuktu’s Vandalism Indicted by ICC

Mali is a landlocked country in Western Africa, with an approximate population of 14.5 million. The population is divided into several ethnic groups, of which the Bambara are the largest. Other ethnic groups include the Fulani, Berbers, Tuareg, Sonike and Songhai. More than 90 per cent of the people live in the southern part of the country. In the northern part, Mali’s plains stretch into the Sahara. Agriculture and fishing form the mainstay of the economy. About half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. More than 90 per cent of the population follows Sunni Islam. Mali’s social and cultural life has been heavily coloured by the Sufi tradition. The Qadiriyah and Tijaniya Sufi orders have been particularly influential in the country and in much of Western Africa.

From the 8th to the 16th century, Mali was part of three empires that dominated trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves, salt and other precious commodities: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. In the late 19th century, Mali came under French control and became a part of the French Sudan. An independent Republic of Mali was established in 1960.

Islam came to Mali in the 11th century. Timbuktu (formerly spelled as Timbuktoo), located in the north of the country, has been the most important city of Mali. From the 13th to the 16th century, Timbuktu was well-known across Africa as well as Europe for its flourishing trade, its fabled wealth and its tradition of learning and scholarship. In the 16th century, it had a population of about 60,000. It was the starting point for African pilgrims going on the Hajj. Timbuktu’s society and culture represent a fascinating synthesis of West African and Arab influences. By the mid-16th century Timbuktu boasted over 150 Islamic schools and many public libraries. The city is dotted with mosques and the tombs of saints, scholars and renowned teachers. Timbuktu has been known as the city of 333 saints. Historically, madrasas, public libraries and Sufism have played a major role in the spread of Islam in Western Africa.

Timbuktu has had an enviable reputation as a city of Islamic learning. Nearly a million manuscripts on Islamic disciplines and on science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine are preserved in the city’s public libraries and private collections. Some of the manuscripts date from the 10th century. Three of Timbaktu’s ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums and cemeteries were added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1988.

During the past few decades, there has been an undercurrent of hostility between the adherents of Sufi orders and activists and social reformers of Salafi persuasion. Occasionally there have been violent confrontations between the two groups. The situation has been exacerbated in the wake of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which has facilitated a heavy movement of weapons across the Sahara. Many extremist Salafis, who were pushed out of Algeria after the end of the civil war in 2002, sought refuge in the northern part of Mali. Many Tuareg, who had long lived in Libya, returned to Mali after the end of the Qaddafi regime, armed with heavy weapons. Military officers seized power from President Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012, leaving Mali’s army in disarray. Following this, large parts of the country descended into chaos and anarchy and the economy ground to a halt. The atmosphere of fear and insecurity forced thousands of residents of Timbuktu to leave the city. In 2012 armed groups owing allegiance to Ansar Deine (Defenders of the Faith), led by Iyad al-Ghaly, and said to have links with Al Qaeda, took control of Mali’s three main cities: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Armed men of Ansar Dine patrolled the streets, arrested men for smoking and forcing women to cover their faces. Many Europeans were kidnapped for ransom.

On June 30, 2012, a group of Muslim men belonging to Ansar Dine, armed with assault rifles and pickaxes, broke down the door of a 15th-century mosque, the Sidi Yahya mosque, in the historic city of Timbuktu. The smashed door has been left sealed as it leads to the tombs of saints buried there. The militant Ansar Dine, who are wedded to a puritanical, Salafi interpretation of Islamic law and had already destroyed several of the city’s Sufi mausoleums, argued that the building of tombs and mausoleums was contrary to Islamic teachings and that they are a form of idolatry. On July 10, 2012 members of the group destroyed two Sufi tombs at the 14th century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.

Ansar Dine’s vandalism was condemned by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, International Criminal Court and international human rights groups. A prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said that such acts of vandalism constitute war crimes. The OIC said in a statement that the mosques and mausoleums vandalized by Ansar Dine were part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not have be allowed to be destroyed and put in harm’s way by bigoted, extremist elements. Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, condemned the attacks and said that such wanton acts of desecration and destruction are in violation of Islamic principles.

In December 2012 the United Nations Security Council approved French military intervention for chasing out militant groups from Mali. The French military intervention in 2013-14 led to the retreat of the Ansar Dine fighters. Their chief Iyad al-Ghaly fled to Algeria.

On 16 January 2013 the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened a formal investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali in 2012. The court issued an arrest warrant for Ahmad al-Faqih al-Mahdi, the mastermind and leader of the destruction of mausoleums and sacred shrines in Mali, on 18 September 2015. Mahdi, a Tuareg, was appointed the head of the anti-vice squad (Hisbah) by Ansar Dine. He personally directed the destruction of the shrines. In some cases he wielded the pickaxe himself. On 26 September 2015 al-Mahdi was handed over to the Court by the government of Niger. The trial began on 22 August 2016 and on 27 September 2016 he was held guilty for intentionally causing destruction to 10 mausoleums and other religious sites in Mali and sentenced to nine years in prison. The Court also held him liable for damages of €2.7 million.

Videos presented to the Court showed Ansar Dine men pushing, kicking and hacking at the walls of the tombs, reducing them to rubble. Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty and apologised for his crimes. “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused,” he said. At the opening of the trial, Mahdi expressed his “deep regret” to the people of Timbuktu, to whom the monuments had been of great religious and cultural importance. “I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look upon me as a son who has lost his way,” he said and added, “I would like to make before them a solemn promise that this was the first and the last wrongful act that I ever committed.” He said that he was acting under the “evil wave” of al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine and urged Muslims not to follow his example. “I hope the years that I will spend in prison will enable me to purge the evil spirits that overtook me,” he concluded.

Yemen Faces World’s Biggest Humanitarian Crisis

A massive popular uprising swept across the Middle East in 2011. The uprising was prompted by the Arab people’s deep-seated anger and resentment against authoritarian and oppressive rule, nepotism and corruption in high places, poverty and high rates of unemployment, food insecurity, suppression of human rights and civil liberties, rising inflation, brutality of police and security forces, bureaucratic apathy and breakdown of civil amenities.

In Yemen, people rose in revolt against the three-decade -long autocratic rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to a United Nations report, Saleh had amassed a huge fortune, estimated at over $60 billion from corrupt deals, embezzlement and extortion. A brutal crackdown on the protesters by the police led to the killing of at least 50 people. The deaths triggered a public outcry and a growing demand for the resignation of Saleh and his government. Following the public outrage and massive demonstrations across the country, a number of government ministers and high-ranking military officials resigned.

After much reluctance, Saleh agreed to hand over power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi for a two-year period as a transition deal, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 2012 Hadi won the presidential election. As Hadi began to assert his authority and act in a high-handed manner, Houthi rebels, backed by Iran and a section of Hadi’s supporters, joined hands to fight government forces. In September 2014, the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital Sana’a. In early 2015, as Houthi rebels seized control of most parts of the country, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis, who follow the Shi’i creed, a threat and a proxy of Iran, its arch-enemy. Alarmed by the growing power of the Houthis, Saudi Arabia formed a military alliance of 10 countries to fight the Houthi rebels. The United States backed the coalition and provided logistic support but did not join in direct military action. Taking advantage of the chaos and the fight between the Houthis and the Saudi-led military alliance, al-Qaeda fighters and ISIS-affiliated jihadis seized parts of the south. Despite air bombardment and land and naval siege, the Saudi-led alliance has not succeeded in wresting control of Sana’a and north of the country from the Houthis. Saleh was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack fired by Houthi rebels on the outskirts of Sana’a on 4 December 2017. The situation in Yemen remains deadlocked and volatile.

The war and violence that have ravaged Yemen during the past four years have brought about utter devastation and the country is faced with the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, at least 10,000 people have been killed so far. The worst recorded cholera outbreak has taken a heavy toll of life. Nearly 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation. An estimated 18.8 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Medicine and fuel are in short supply and 2.5 million people have no access to clean water. Over 3.3 million Yemenis have been displaced. Forty countries and international organisations have pledged $2.1 billion in humanitarian assistance to the Yemenis.

British Muslims: Visit My Mosque

According to the 2011 census, the population of Muslims in the UK is around 2.7 million, which accounts for about 4.5% of the population. Nearly half of British Muslims were born in the UK. There are over 1,200 mosques in the country.

Where British Muslims enjoy substantial freedom and autonomy in respect of religious beliefs and practices, there has been a notable rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the past few years. According to figures from the Metropolitan police, incidents of Islamophobic crime in the country have increased by 70% in recent years. The climate of hate and demonization of Muslims is nurtured, sustained and reinforced by far-right leaders and organisations, writers and the media. Terrorist attacks perpetrated by some misguided Muslim youth have also widened the divide between Muslims and mainstream society. One of the factors that has contributed to the growing mistrust between Muslims and mainstream British society is ignorance, misconceptions and misrepresentation about Islam and Muslims and a deficit of communication and interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. Surveys reveal that over 90% of Britons have never stepped into the places of worship of another faith.

With a view to dispel misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and to open channels of communication and understanding between Muslims and the wider society, the Muslim Council of Britain launched a countrywide initiative called Visit My Mosque three years ago. The purpose of the initiative is to clear misconceptions and unfounded stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, to build bridges of understanding and conciliation between Muslims and the wider society, to reach out to fellow Britons and to strengthen community cohesion across the country. The Muslim Council of Britain is an umbrella organisation of Muslims in the UK with over 500 affiliated organisations, mosques, school and charities.

Under the initiative, hundreds of mosques in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland opened their doors to neighbours, visitors and members of the public from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The visitors included prominent public figures, interfaith leaders, writers and media persons. Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Maidenhead Mosque in southeast London while Al-Manaar Mosque welcomed London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The Quran says: “Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious, for your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance” (16:125).

Billionaire Who Pays Fines for Hijab-Wearing Muslim Women in Europe

The population of Muslims in Europe is estimated to be over 45.7 million. An estimated 23 million Muslims live in the Russian Federation. The population of Muslims in the US and Canada is around 3.70 million. By and large, Muslims in Western countries follow Islamic tenets and cultural practices without any hindrance. A majority of Muslim women in Western countries wear loose-fitting but trendy garments which cover the body along with the hijab which leaves the face uncovered.

The number of women who wear the face-covering burqa or niqab in Western countries is extremely small. Europe’s largest Muslim population lives in France where they number over 6 million. According to official records, less than 2,000 Muslim women wear the full-face burqa. The population of Muslims in the Netherlands is estimated to be over a million. The official estimate of the number of women who wear the face-covering veil in the country ranges between 100 and 500. Most of them wear it only occasionally. Around 500,000 Muslims live in Austria. Women who wear the face-covering burqa in the country number only 150. Bulgaria has one of Europe’s largest and oldest Muslim communities, who number around 920,000 and make up about 12% of the population. Only 12 Muslim women in the country wear the full-face burqa. In Denmark only 50 women wear the full-face burqa. Interestingly, some of the Muslim women who wear the full-face burqa are of European descent and have converted to Islam.

The issue of the hijab, particularly the face-covering burqa or niqab, has become highly controversial across Europe. In 2011 France became the first European country to ban face-covering burqa in public. Those who violate the law can be fined up to €150. The law stipulates that anyone who forces a woman to cover her face in public is liable to be fined up to €30,000. Following the example of France, Belgium banned the face-covering burqa in public in the same year. Those who violate the ban are liable to pay a fine of €137.50 and may be imprisoned for seven days. Austria banned the full-face veil in public places such as universities, public transport system and courts in October 2017. Those who violate the ban may be fined €150. The Netherlands approved a partial ban on the burqa in certain public places such as schools and hospitals in 2016. Bulgaria banned the burqa in public places in 2016. Though there is no country-wide ban on the wearing of face-covering veils in Germany, the province of Bavaria banned teachers and university professors from covering their faces. There is no country-wide ban on the burqa in Switzerland but the region of Tessin passed a law in 2016 banning the burqa in public places. Anyone caught wearing the burqa is liable to pay a fine of €9,200. The Danish government has proposed a ban on the full-face burqa in public places but the proposal is yet to approved by the parliament.

There have been widespread protests by Muslim women in France, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and other European countries against the ban on face-covering veils.

Rasheed Nekkaz
Rasheed Nekkaz is an Algerian-born businessman in France. Nekkaz, who has studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne, has set up a fund of one million euros for the payment of fines for women who defy the ban on the face-covering burqa in public. Nekkaz says that it is important for European governments to know and understand that women who wear the veil do so out of their personal choice and that their personal choice and freedom should be respected. He has paid fines for 1,538 Muslim women who defied the ban in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

Nekkaz says he is in contact with 583 French Muslim women who wear the veil and who have been fined for wearing it in public. Two-thirds of them are of French descent and have converted to Islam. In March this year Nekkaz travelled to Iran to express his solidarity with 29 Iranian women who were arrested for refusing to wear the mandatory veil on International Women’s Day on March 8. Nekkaz, whose Stanford-educated American Muslim wife does not wear the veil, said, “The reason I am here is to defend freedom, which is a universal right. I defend the freedom of those who want to wear the veil in Europe and those who do not want to wear it in Iran.”

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