Islamist rebels from the Ansar Dine faction prepare to pray...

Islamist rebels from the Ansar Dine faction prepare to pray in the desert just outside Gao, Mali. (May 16, 2012) Credit: AP

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.

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.


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