In Timbuktu, Protecting Priceless Manuscripts From Senseless Destruction

In northern Mali, Islamist extremists are on a rampage, destroying Sufi Muslim shrines and historical treasures. In a Timbuktu library, a man has vowed to protect his precious manuscripts from the fundamentalist wrath that has taken over the city.

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
Philipp Hedemann

TIMBUKTU - "If you destroy the library, it's all gone. Everything. Our history, our cultural heritage, our identity. It would mean total loss," says the man who for years has been with the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research library in Timbuktu. He works in the section for medieval manuscripts, archiving and digitizing them.

It's always been a race against the clock, he says, to research and record the precious sheets and scrolls so vulnerable to termites, the ravages of light and more. And it's a race that may now be lost, as the manuscripts he has worked so hard to preserve are threatened with destruction.

For several weeks now, Ansar Dine extremists with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali. They have been systematically destroying Sufi Muslim shrines, and the treasures in the library may be the next object of their fundamentalist wrath.

The Ahmed Baba Institute was created in 1973 after UNESCO passed a resolution calling on the government of Mali to establish a center for the preservation of Arab manuscripts -- manuscripts that belie the chauvinistic colonialist assumption that before the advent of the white man there was hardly any culture of writing in Africa.

In the late Middle Ages, Timbuktu's scribes wrote down everything they knew in Arabic, in the Berber language called Tamashek, and in African languages of the Sahel zone. The caravan city at the southern edge of the desert was for centuries not only a center of trans-Saharan trade, but a center for ideas from all over the world. Over time, in a climate of liberal and tolerant Islam, a huge store of knowledge was amassed.

With its many scholars and over 150 Koranic schools, Timbuktu at its peak ranked on a par with Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as an intellectual hub. According to an old Malian saying "the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu," and researchers believe there are as many as 300,000 manuscripts in northern Mali, dealing with religion, history, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, numerology, biology, geography, grammar, literature, medicine, mathematics, Islamic law and more.

And now, says the library academic: "At least three Ansar Dine men are occupying the new library building. The computers have been stolen. They've spared the manuscripts until now but that can change at any moment."
 In January, as ever more heavily-armed Tuareg rebels who had formerly served fallen Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi returned to northern Mali to fight the Malian Army for the independence of the Tuareg Azawad territory, the library worker fled Timbuktu with his wife and two children to Mali's capital Bamako, which is some 1,000 km (621 mi) to the south.
 Since then the 38-year-old -- who doesn't wish his name published for fear of reprisals by the Ansar Dine "defenders of the faith" -- has been calling friends in Timbuktu almost daily. And what he's hearing scares him. "Ansar Dine has set up a reign of terror in the city. Timbuktu used to be a joyful place, but there's no laughter now," he says.

A frenzied destruction

On April 1, Tuareg tribesmen and Ansar Dine fighters took over control of the desert city. But in a matter of days the Islamists had chased the Tuareg out. They didn't need them anymore, and the Tuareg impeded the imposition of Sharia law.

Now in Timbuktu, women who appear unveiled in public are flogged. If a man and a woman go for a walk together, both are flogged. TV sets and antennas have been destroyed. Only radio is available, and most broadcasts consist of orders issued by the occupiers and religious teachings.

"There's no music, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no jewelry -- no joy. Anybody who can is leaving," says the former library worker. According to the UN, over 120,000 people have already fled to neighboring countries and there are 150,000 displaced Malians within Mali.

The Islamists, many of whom are masked and whose numbers allegedly include Mauritanians, Algerians, Saudis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, have turned this center of Islamic erudition into a frenzied hell. With fanatical furor, wielding hammers, pickaxes and shovels, screaming "Allahu Akbar" (meaning "God is Great"), they've attacked Timbuktu's centuries-old mausoleums containing the remains of saints (Timbuktu is known as the City of 333 Saints) and announced that they would not rest until all 16 mausoleums, declared World Heritage treasures in 1988 by UNESCO, had been destroyed.

That the helpless UN cultural organization placed Timbuktu on its list of "World Heritage in Danger" last June; that the outraged but powerless head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, pronounced the Islamist abuse an "attack on humanity;" and that Fatouh Bensouda, the Gambian lawyer who is now Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague called the destruction of the monuments "war crimes' -- all this merely egged the Islamists on to continue their vandalous rampage.

While the graves of saints, for West African Sufis, are sometimes considered even more important than mosques, to Ansar Dine Salafists honoring the saints or the dead constitutes idolatry. They believe that true believers should worship Allah only. Hence all graves higher than 15 cm (6 in) off the ground must be leveled, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bamana told the BBC, claiming that this was in accordance with Sharia law.

Princeton-educated historian Shamil Jeppie also fears that the Timbuktu manuscripts could fall victim to this fanaticism, "particularly Sufi texts and texts containing numbers that the Salafists could take for the blasphemous work of the devil and consequently destroy." 
It can be assumed that many of the fighters have low levels of education -- if indeed any -- and could destroy manuscripts that actually do not conflict with their religious views out of sheer ignorance, adds the researcher from the University of Cape Town who has been studying the manuscripts together with other experts from around the world.

Jeppie has been to Timbuktu several times and says that the precious documents could also suffer damage through neglect and rough handling. But should they be destroyed, "the loss, material and otherwise, would be beyond quantifying. So far we've only been able to research a fraction of the library's holdings," says Jeppie.

30,000 historical documents

What was supposed to protect the manuscripts, which date mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries but with a few thought to date back as far as the 13th century, could now turn out to be their undoing. Over the past few decades, researchers at the Ahmed Baba Institute gathered up to 30,000 documents in northern Mali so that these could be properly stored and researched. The institute, in the words of former president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa (which partially financed the library's building costs), was to become a "center of the African renaissance." 
Before the manuscripts were collected at the institute -- which is named after the scholar Ahmed Baba who died in Timbuktu in 1627 -- families kept their manuscripts at home or in small private libraries, well hidden from invaders that included the Moroccans and the French.

Now that Ansar Dine thugs have forced their way into the Ahmed Baba library, many families regret having turned over the work of their forefathers. Those wishing to reclaim their manuscripts have not been allowed by the extremists to do so.

"The Ansar Dine men are heavily armed. Nobody's going to risk their life to save the manuscripts. Luckily, many families never gave their manuscripts to the library," says the worker who used to proudly guide visitors around the building.

Since tourists -- potential hostages -- no longer come to the oasis city, the manuscripts have become a major tool for the Islamists. They know that by threatening to destroy them they can get international attention and demonstrate their total control over the northern part of Mali. The former library employee hopes they won't play the ultimate card. But it's only a hope.

Read the original article in German


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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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