Exactly two years after France came to Mali’s aid and fought back Islamic extremists who had seized the north of the country, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita marched in the place of honor to President Hollande’s right in the massive rally for unity in Paris.
“Do you understand my emotions? It is impossible for me not to be here,” explained President Keita, remembering the French military operation Serval, which pushed back and eventually expelled the Islamic militants that had terrorized the north of his country and were advancing south.
During the Islamist occupation, music, including Timbuktu’s famous Festival Au Désert, was banned. The act of silencing Malian music, the very root of the blues and rock n’roll, stunned the world. Renowned musicians such as Khaira Arby had to flee, lest the extremists act on the threat to cut her tongue out. Another musician from northern Mali, Baba Salah, put it succinctly: “Music is like oxygen. Now we can’t breathe.”
Equally horrifying, the extremists targeted the treasures of Islamic enlightenment, the medieval and Renaissance period manuscripts of Timbuktu. Through the efforts of Cheick Abdel Kaider Haidara, supported by funding from governments and foundations, hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts were spirited away by night.
While the story of the daring rescue of the manuscripts is well known, the content of the ancient manuscripts remains obscure to all but a few specialists. This is especially regrettable because this vast storehouse of science, philosophy, ethics, jurisprudence, literature, music, and poetry represents an authentic Islamic counter-narrative to the twisted ideology of hatred and exclusion that drives extremists like the Paris murderers.
As the vitriolic version of Islam again dominates the news cycle in light of the Paris attacks, it is more important than ever to spotlight the authentic alternative. “Liberté, egalité, fraternité,” or “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” may sound foreign to some, but these universal values resonate throughout the ancient Timbuktu manuscripts.
These largely privately-owned documents, numbering in the hundreds of thousands of pages and now secreted away in undisclosed locations, testify to a creative, intellectually curious, tolerant, and rights-oriented Islamic civilization in medieval and Renaissance era Timbuktu – the diametric opposite of the violent, punitive “Islam” of Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and their many offshoots.
The Timbuktu manuscripts contain discourses on human rights, specifically the rights of women, workers, orphans, and even animals. Their pages are filled with debates on the efficacy of slavery, the salutary or deleterious effects of tobacco, good business practices, and governance that will keep corruption out. Some treatises trumpet the importance of tolerance, and others the value of women attending school. In the realm of science the manuscripts delve into astronomy, biology, optics, chemistry, and medicine with a sophistication comparable to contemporary works from Europe.
The Timbuktu Renaissance, a Malian-American initiative launched at the Brookings Institution’s 2014 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, believes that this ancient center of trade, knowledge, and culture offers an unexpected answer to the question plaguing France, and the world, after last week’s attack: how to defeat the terrorists and the violent ideology driving them? The answer is through knowledge, education, and culture: an authentic Islamic counter-narrative of peace, tolerance, curiosity, and human rights provides the bulwark against the viral vitriol of hatred and destruction.
Working in partnership with the Malian government – with the strong and active support of President Keita—the Timbuktu Renaissance aims to foster peace, unity, reconciliation, and economic development in Mali through a focus on its culture and knowledge – past and present. The last element — economic development — is essential to providing a sustainable counter to the well-funded forces of extremism. This has been recognized by Malian Minister of Culture N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, President Keita’s official delegate to the Timbuktu Renaissance.
Strengthening Mali’s signature culture will revive tourism and drive revenues from creative production. This economic development will enable Malians – whether they number among the many with creative talent – or not, to thrive, to grow their economy, and to develop their society – all part of formidable opposition to extremism.
Mali’s government recognizes the treasure that is Timbuktu, even though the desert town of today bears no resemblance to the “city of gold” from Mansa Musa’s day. Another key item on the Timbuktu Renaissance agenda is the bold initiative to revive the region by creating a great modern university in Timbuktu, inspired by the legendary center of learning of yore. Minister Diallo, who has been tapped by President Keita to spearhead the project, envisions a center of learning both philosophical and practical. The famed manuscripts will receive the extensive research they so desperately need to spread their message of Islamic enlightenment. Through the University of Timbuktu, Mali also aims to become a center of research in agriculture, solar energy, and sustainable resource development.
Former Brookings Expert
Within the next month, the Timbuktu Renaissance will launch a “Peace Caravan” series of concerts in Mali, hopefully culminating in a celebration of the Peace Accords between north and south Mali. With a recent cabinet reshuffle, positive signs suggest that the accords will go through soon. And what better way to celebrate peace and reconciliation than with a concert in a country with such a deep, long, and storied musical tradition and heritage? The Timbuktu Renaissance believes strongly in returning the symbolic significance of music to Timbuktu, where it can play its traditional role of uniting people from all over the country and continent.
Other Timbuktu Renaissance initiatives that are already or soon to be underway include the development of a center for innovation and culture in Timbuktu in the former “La Maison” hotel, the erstwhile site of the Islamists’ court and prison; an international travel exhibition on Timbuktu , including manuscripts, instruments, handicrafts, and more; and support for digitization and conservation of the manuscripts.
It was indeed fitting that Malian President Boubacar Keita strode alongside President Hollande in mutual defiance of barbaric violence and in support of peace and unity, especially given the heroic role of Malian Lassana Bathily in the kosher grocery store siege. As the world collectively wonders how to combat the scourge of violent extremism, part of the answer may lie in the renaissance of the least likely of places – Timbuktu.
On December 6, 2017, Vanda Felbab-Brown will join a panel of experts to discuss her new book, “The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It,” and how new policy, program, and technological tools can help reduce the threats that illegal wildlife trafficking poses to vulnerable communities and to our national security.