A Tuareg nomad stands near a 13th century mosque in Timbuktu in this file photo [Reuters]

There is an old saw in English: cutting your nose to spite your face. The sorry lot of vigilante Ansar extremists have already desecrated several Muslim saints’ tombs in southern Yemen, but now come reports of lawless fanatics destroying saint shrines in the famed city of Timbuktu in Mali. Al Jazeera is reporting that many, if not all, of the shrines there on the World Heritage List have been damaged or destroyed. These are ritual attractions considered sacred by local Muslims for several centuries, not replicas of the Buddha or foreign idols. So who exactly do these fanatics hate? If you think they are doing this because they hate America and its freedoms, think again.

Iconoclasm has a long history that is hardly unique to the Middle East. The modus vivendi is the idea that if you don’t like something, just get rid of it no matter what other people think. Tolerance and dialogue might as well be Satanic in this twisted worldview. It is important to observe that in both the Yemeni case and now in Timbuktu the destruction takes place because of an almost total breakdown of security. No government, responsible or not to world opinion, is behind this action to such a sacred Islamic site. It is very much a replay of the Wahhabi wave that swept across Arabia with the sword of the Sa’ud clan. The Wahhabis, considered fanatics at the time by most other Muslims, wanted to turn back the clock to a narrow understanding of what they thought life was like in the time of the Prophet. Were ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792 (just six years before Napoleon invaded Egypt and proclaimed himself a true Muslim come to rescue Egypt from its corrupt rulers) to come back from the dead and see the palaces, shopping malls and gentrification of the ka‘ba as these have evolved with the vast oil wealth of the Saudi elite, he would no doubt follow Balaam and curse the day he ever met Ibn Sa’ud.

Timbuktu, as a major African center of Islamic education, is also a rich treasury of Islamic manuscripts. Will these fanatics torch the handwritten copies of the Qu’ran, traditions and other religious books in the libraries? ‘Abd al-Wahhab is not about to be resurrected, but there is a need for a modern day Muslim Balaam to get off his ass and curse such sacrilege.