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Islamic Militants Destroy Malian Cultural Heritage, Purporting a ‘Pure Islam’

August 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Many Malians harmoniously practice Islam alongside cultural traditions such as animism. But these Malians fear that they will be the first targeted as infidels by Islamic militants, who have already destroyed traditional Malian shrines. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we close with another story from the West African nation of Mali.

Earlier this week, Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reported on the rise of Islamic militants and the exodus of refugees.

Tonight, she explores the impact of the conflict on the country’s cultural heritage.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Mali, one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, a land of music, mud mosques, ancient Islamic manuscripts, animists, all now under threat.

About 50 miles from the capital, Bamako, I meet the Hunters. They brandish their 19th century flintlock rifles and their talismans. The Islamists who now control Northern Mali hate all this, but the Hunters culture goes back 1,000 years, and they like to show it off.

These men see themselves as Muslims, but they mix their Islam with animism, traditional culture, and they know that, if the Islamists came down from the north to here, then they’d be the first target. But they’re an essential part of Malian culture.

Heritage is important for people because we all need to have the sense that we have an existence in the past. And if someone wants to destroy this idea of the past, I think it's clear that this one, this person wants to destroy the soul of Malian people.Samuel Sidibe, director of the National Museum of Mali

They show me how they aim their rifles, no shooting, though, because it’s Ramadan, and they say they can always send magic to destroy the Islamists.

DAGABA TRAORE, Hunters community leader (through translator): We’re scared of the new Islamic wave. When they see us wearing Hunters clothes, they won’t regard us as Muslims. They will automatically think we’re infidels who cannot know Allah.

But our external appearance is different from what we feel inside. These foreigners are showing us a kind of Islam which has never been Prophet Mohammed’s message, by taking knives and killing others.

MAN: Allahu akbar!

LINDSEY HILSUM: The people of Timbuktu have already seen what the Islamists can do. Last month, al-Qaida’s local allies set upon the city’s famous Sufi landmarks.

The guardian of the Mausoleum of Alpha Moya could do nothing but watch. The jihadis say the shrines are idolatrous. Crowds came out in protest, but to no avail. The Islamists have since destroyed more shrines.

The director of the National Museum in Bamako has a plan to protect both Islamic and pre-Islamic objects if the jihadists come south.

SAMUEL SIDIBE, National Museum of Mali: If the pure Islam comes to Bamako, all these things are threatened.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Something — I mean, this is completely — this is beautiful.

An animist terra-cotta statue from the 14th century is priceless, both in its monetary value and its cultural meaning.

SAMUEL SIDIBE: The Taliban destroyed the Buddha in Afghanistan. What happened to Timbuktu is quite the same, of course.

Heritage is important for people because we all need to have the sense that we have an existence in the past.

And if someone wants to destroy this idea of the past, I think it’s clear that this one, this person wants to destroy the soul of Malian people.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Culture is about the present, as well as the past. Women I met collecting food aid in Bamako told me they fled the north because the jihadis, many of them foreigners, forced them to wear a full face veil, like Gulf Arabs or Afghans, not Malians.

HAUROYE TOURE, student (through translator): We’re a democratic, sovereign, secular republic. We never expected anyone to impose Sharia on us. We’re in our own country, so we should be free to behave as we wish.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Les Sofas de la Republique, Warriors of the Republic, musicians defending Malian culture and democracy, they’re still free to express themselves in the capital, but this week the Islamists controlling the north banned secular music as satanic, another sign of their intent to attack everything Malians hold dear.