Is nothing sacred? When faced with the wanton destruction of religious sites, it's a natural question.

Islamic extremists have raised it once again by their disturbing assault on the 500-year-old tombs of Timbuktu's Sufi saints in the western African nation of Mali. "The destruction is a divine order," claims a spokesman for the Islamic faction known as Ansar Dine, which has been linked to al-Qaida.

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In keeping with this delusion, ancient mausoleums in other parts of Mali reportedly have already been destroyed by Ansar Dine, inflicting a huge cultural loss. The group believes in strict Islamic law and considers the mausoleums idolatrous. It has ignored international condemnation and operates in a part of Mali beyond the central government's reach.

The Ansar Dine campaign against the Malian shrines is reminiscent of a similar assault by the Taliban on Afghanistan's cultural heritage, most notably the dynamiting of two monumental sandstone Buddhas dating to the sixth century.

These appalling episodes bespeak a profound intolerance that should be rejected by any person of faith. For if each group, on gaining pre-eminence, destroys the legacy of the others, then no one's legacy is safe, and no one's religion is respected. Why would anyone, with or without faith, want to live in such a cultural and spiritual wasteland?

How ironic that those who make the most fervent claims of piety have such a narrow view of the sacred.