Sufi shrines under attack in Timbuktu

Sufi shrines under attack in Timbuktu

The hardline Islamist group Ansar Al Dine is currently in the process of destroying the 16 historic Sufi shrines of Timbuktu. Today, they began destroying the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque

"In legend, it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day (of the world)," Alpha Abdoulahi, the town imam, told Reuters by telephone.

Yet eight Islamist fighters had smashed down the door to the mosque early on Monday, saying they wanted to "destroy the mystery" of the ancient entrance, he said.

"They offered me 50,000 CFA ($100) for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable."

Islamists of the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous. They have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs.

The destruction of the UNESCO-listed sites is being compared to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, an event that in truth, probably did a lot more than the violation of human rights to focus international attention on Afghanistan in the days before 9/11.

The destruction in Timbuktu is also part of what seems like an international pattern of violence targeting Sufi Muslims. Pakistan has seen a number of major attacks against Sufis in recent years including an April 2011 attack that killed 41 devotees at a festival in Punjab. Since the Egyptian revolution, Sufi mosques in Alexandria have been attacked. Sufi schools and cemetaries have been desecrated in Libya in the past year. Three Sufi dervishes were shot by Iranian security forces in Fars province last September. 

Anti-Sufi violence may not be new, but the scale and audacity of these attacks do seem to be increasing.