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Photo of a mausoleum destroyed by jihadis in Timbuktu

Killing cultures or saving from superstition?

How do you react to Ahmad al-Mahdi going on trial for destroying cultural heritage in Timbuktu? Just vandalism, on a par with trashing bus shelters in inner-city London? Or is it, as al-Mahdi suggested at the time, protecting the public good by eradicating the remnants of superstition?

Or is it something worse, something that really does deserve an international tribunal, with sentences of 10 years or so on the line, rather than the Timbuktu equivalent of Dagenham magistrates’ courts handing out six months with some community service and an ASBO? What makes us react so strongly against what al-Mahdi and his al-Qaida fellow-travellers did?

After all, when it comes to eradicating superstition, I recognise that my fellow-Protestants do have some historical form. I think Calvin is right to decry images of saints or Mary in churches which attract worship. And I would think it wrong for, say, a god from the Hindu pantheon to be up in our college chapel. My rationale, of course, is the traditional Christian antipathy to idolatry. Not the least part about Christian analysis of idolatry, building especially on passages like Isaiah 44, is that idolatry tells lies about God.

But put that way, shouldn’t I in fact side with al-Mahdi? Wasn’t he just stopping lies being told about God and how to worship him? The reason why I must not do that – even though Christianity, Islam and Judaism share some (not all) of the analytical framework of idolatry – is that al-Mahdi was substituting one lie for another. In fact, there is a two-fold aspect to what the jihadists did in Timbuktu.

First, there was the continued untruth about God because his Son was not acknowledged. There is, though, another aspect of lie here. By attempting to obliterate Timbuktu’s past, a lie was being told about Timbuktu and who lived there and what they did. I may think Timbuktu’s historic inhabitants in its golden age were wrong about God and I may still see in some of what they did God’s continuing common grace, but I must not tell the lie that they were never there. If I do, my re-writing of human history starts to re-shape human identity and I start to make humanity in my image rather than acknowledging it is in God’s image.

So is al-Mahdi’s demolition job in Timbuktu more serious than western alcohol-tanked yobs trashing a high street? In an important sense, yes, because the yobs aren’t telling lies about who we are. And if we tell lies about who we are, we readily tell lies about how we relate to God.

Photo of a mausoleum destroyed by jihadis in Timbuktu: UN Mission in Mali

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
24 August 2016

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