Heritage of Islam faces threat from within

AFTER THE Libyan revolution last year I spent several evenings in an open-air cafe next to the al-Sha’ab al-Dahmani mosque in…

AFTER THE Libyan revolution last year I spent several evenings in an open-air cafe next to the al-Sha’ab al-Dahmani mosque in Tripoli, drinking hot sweet tea with almonds and talking politics with Libyan friends.

Col Muammar Gadafy had fallen and for the first time in their lives they felt free. Now their liberty is under threat. At the end of August, a group of armed, bearded men seized a bulldozer and destroyed part of the mosque because it contains the graves of 16th-century Sufi saints. Such shrines, they said, are idolatrous.

I don’t suppose the men in the bulldozer had heard of William Dowsing. He was a Christian, not a Muslim, English, not Libyan, and he lived in the 17th century, not the 21st.

But as “commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition” he was similarly determined to obliterate objects venerated by a different sect of his own religion.


It was during the English civil war when the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, set about destroying crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary and all emblems of Catholicism (as well as wreaking terror across Ireland – but that’s another story).

“We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells . . . and about a hundred chirubims and angells,” wrote Dowsing after leading his henchmen into Peterhouse college chapel in Cambridge in December 1643. Countless works of art were lost to history.

Today’s Puritans are the Salafists, who follow the strict Wahhabi form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, and equate mystical Sufism with black magic.

They are not restricting themselves to Libya. I have just returned from Mali, where Salafists, led by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, have taken control of the north of the country.

In July they demolished Sufi shrines in Timbuktu with pickaxes and mallets shouting “Allahu akbar” – “God is great”. The shrines, which date back to the 15th and 16th century when Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning, are made of mud, but residents of the fabled city rebuild them after each rainy season and still pray to the Sufi saints whose remains lie inside.

What disturbs people in both countries is the weakness of their governments in the face of these assaults. In Mali, the army ran away from a rebellion in the north. As politicians and soldiers squabble, the Islamists are on the march – last weekend, they took the small town of Douentza, south of Timbuktu, on the road to the capital, Bamako.

In Libya, uniformed men from the supreme security council, part of the ministry of interior, folded their arms and watched the destruction of the shrine.

The interior minister, Fawzi Abdelali (who resigned and then reinstated himself), told journalists the attackers were too heavily armed, adding: “I can’t enter a losing battle to kill people over a grave.”

Yet a grave is living history.

“People who destroy the mausoleums are killing the people of Timbuktu,” said Samuel Sidibé, director of the National Museum of Mali. “Heritage is important because we all need to have the sense that we have an existence in the past.”

The last time we witnessed this kind of religious vandalism was when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001.

Then, it mobilised world opinion. Now the appetite for international intervention is diminished. Nato already acted to help oust Gadafy – most Libyans I know think they can no longer rely on foreigners but must create their own strong institutions to resist the Islamists. When they elected a new parliament, they chose not religious extremists and iconoclasts but technocrats. Those who have been elected now have to act.

Ironically, the rebellion in Mali was an unintended consequence of the revolution in Libya. Gadafy armed the nomadic Tuareg, who fought on his behalf. After his death, hundreds of heavily armed Tuareg fighters returned to northern Mali and started a rebellion. They teamed up with Islamists who were already operating in the area and drove out the weak government forces. Now the Tuareg fighters have also fled, leaving al-Qaeda and its allies in control.

William Dowsing was acting on the orders of the English parliament, which passed an ordinance on August 28th, 1643, stating that “all monuments of idolatry and superstition should be removed and abolished”.

The following year the ordinance was rescinded and Dowsing fell out of favour. Cromwell’s government was ousted and King Charles took back the throne. The fear today is that much more of the priceless Islamic heritage of the Sahara will be destroyed before the governments in Mali and Libya install law and order, and stop the latter-day Dowsings from doing their worst.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor of Channel 4. She appearing at the Mountains to the Sea Festival at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, at noon next Sunday.

Her book Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution has been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.