If you’re looking for a good news story, don’t go past this piece by Yochi Dreazen in yesterday’s New Republic on the how the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu were rescued from Ansar Dine, the fundamentalist Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda who occupied northern Mali last year.
It’s a tremendous tale. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out of libraries, and then out of Timbuktu entirely, to safety in the south. Although some were still lost, and other manuscripts may have been damaged by the journey, it appears that the vast bulk of the city’s rich literary heritage has been saved.
As Dreazen says,
Timbuktu was once the center of a vibrant trans-Saharan network, where traders swapped not only slaves, salt, gold, and silk, but also manuscripts—scientific, artistic, and religious masterworks written in striking calligraphy on crinkly linen-based paper. Passed down through generations of Timbuktu’s ancient families, they offer a tantalizing history of a moderate Islam, in which scholars argued for women’s rights and welcomed Christians and Jews.
Which serves as an important reminder that the terrorists and mad fundamentalists are not the only ones who can lay claim to the name of Islam. Just like Christianity, it’s a vast patchwork of different traditions – some deeply inhumane, but others moderate, tolerant and humanistic. Those who burned manuscripts call themselves Muslims, but so does Abdel Kader Haidara who organised the operation to save them.
Fundamentalism is a curse to which no religion is immune. Even those of us who regard all religions as false owe a duty to believers to recognise that not all of them should be tarred with the fundamentalist brush.
Much the same point is made by Juan Cole at Informed Comment in a post yesterday on the double standards by which people assess the foundations of Islam and Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting historical material there; for anyone whose Anzac Day celebrations have given them renewed curiosity about the Middle East, it’s not a bad place to start. Here’s Cole’s conclusion:
Many 19th century Christians imagined that Islam was on its last legs and that all the Muslims would convert to Christianity. They thought the same of Hinduism and Buddhism. They mostly were very wrong. … In fact, by the end of this century, some 30% of the world could well be Muslim, whereas Christianity will likely be a shrinking proportion of humankind, just for demographic reasons. Not to mention that most “Christian” countries contain pluralities of non-religious people. Many, such as Sweden or Eastern Europe, have non-religious majorities. Significant proportions of Turks, Tunisians, Uzbeks, etc. in the Muslim world also report that they aren’t interested in religion.
It is not impossible that modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine religion, so that 200 years from now neither Christianity nor Islam will be central to most peoples’ lives.
You can identify as Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever without being captive to fundamentalism and without letting it rule your life.