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Tim Blagg

Crimes against humanity

When ancient documents are the target

Every once in awhile, we get a glimpse of the sort of people who have declared war on the West, on the United States, on civilization.

We call them “al-Qaida” or “Taliban” or “Islamic fundamentalist fanatics,” but they remain a mysterious group dedicated to destroying what we consider basic human rights.

For the most part, their motivation remains murky to most Americans, and their tactics — suicide bombers, attacks on school children, death and destruction — seem incomprehensible.

But although this beast remains in the shadows, we sometimes can get an idea of how they think.

Take the recent destruction of irreplaceable documents, some nearly 900 years old, in the ancient walled city of Timbuktu.

The 30,000 or so manuscripts were held in the brand-new Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research, and covered subjects ranging from science, astrology and medicine to history, theology, grammar and geography. All are in Arabic script, in the Arabic language and African languages.

They dated back to the late 12th century, the start of a 300-year golden age for Timbuktu as a spiritual and intellectual capital for the spread of Islam in Africa.

The al Qaida-inspired insurgents were, in fact, destroying their own history.

In April of last year, rebels belonging to the desert Tuareg tribe had seized control of Timbuktu, but were superseded by the “Islamists” who promptly banned music, insisted women cover themselves and began carrying out public executions and amputations.

Like the Pakistani Taliban who shot a teenage girl in the head for insisting on her right to an education, they revealed themselves as anti-women, anti-learning, anti-democratic and anti-Christian.

If they were to hold sway, they would return the world to a tribal existence in which only a few men were literate, and reading anything but the Koran would be forbidden.

The sad fact is that the doctrines they preach are not based on Islamic tradition or religious practices.

In the centuries following Muhammad’s death and the spreading of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims became the repository of higher learning and research in the world. While Europeans were slowly and painfully trying to rebuild some semblance of the civilization brought by the Roman empire, Arab mathematicians invented algebra, codified astronomy and translated the learning of ancient Greece.

Great men of the time, such as the famed Omar Khayyam, poet and mathematician, would be horrified to see the distortion of Islamic credo advocated by these men.

Now the insurgents, unwilling to confront French and Malian armed forces, have retreated into the vast wastes of the Sahara, where they will undoubtedly be planning future terrorist attacks on their neighbors.

Fortunately, tens of thousands more of the priceless manuscripts — no one knows how many — were being kept in other libraries and private homes in Timbuktu, and some are believed to have survived the depredations of the Islamist fighters,

Since the holdings in the library were as yet uncataloged, the extent of the loss to academia won’t be known for some time, and may never be completely known.

What we do know, however, is that these angry, bitter, ignorant Islamists must not be allowed to win, no matter where and when they strike.

Whatever else about them remains mysterious, it’s clear that their fundamental goals are antithetical to everything that western civilization holds dear — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

They are a dark force that must be countered wherever they rear their ugly heads.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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