We rightly hear much about the travails of Coptic Christians and the like at the hands of ascendant Islam, much less about the fate of many Sufis.
Their genealogy was almost guaranteed to cause affront to the narrow-minded: an asceticism influenced by Christian desert hermits and orders of wandering mendicant friars — the derivation of dervishes-and a mystical piety that Abraham, son of Maimonedes, transmitted into — Judaism. That their religious practices have a strong element of joy — dancing, drums, tambourines and hymn singing — is further powerful incitement to the puritanical killjoys of radical Islam.
In an ominous reprise of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, Salafists in Mali have desecrated and destroyed several Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. These unique 15th-century structures were built from dried mud. Shortly after Unesco declared them world heritage sites, Islamist fighters from the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) al-Qaeda-affiliate surrounded them and hacked them apart with crowbars and pickaxes to cries of “Allahu akbar”. Whenever I hear that being shouted by men waving guns, my instincts tell me something is radically amiss. These acts of vandalism have been condemned by the UN Secretary General and declared war crimes by the International Criminal Court, whose Article 8 forbids deliberate attacks on undefended civilian buildings.
Sufis have also experienced lethal attacks in several Muslim countries. In April 2011, 41 people were slain by Islamist suicide bombers while attending a festival at the Sufi shrine of Sakhi Sarwar in Pakistan. The culprits were the Pakistani Taliban, aggrieved at an entirely unrelated government strike on their fighters elsewhere in the Punjab. In Egypt, hardline Salafists have targeted Sufi mosques in Alexandria, their intention being to destroy the ancient shrines these often contain. This is part and parcel of a campaign against “idolatry” which has led the Salafists to campaign for the covering of the ancient pyramids, though these were never objects of worship for a civilisation that flourished four or five thousand years ago. If this was a temporary measure, of the kind so brilliantly done by the Bulgarian artist Christo with Florida atolls, I’d welcome it, but you can be sure that in hoping to cover the pyramids in wax, the Salafists are not inspired by Christo or the late Joseph Beuys either. The new Western-backed government in Libya has turned a blind eye to Salafists burning Sufi libraries or bulldozing shrines of Sufi sages and scholars in Benghazi. Iran has also declared virtual war on its Sufis, with some devotees being shot dead by militiamen acting on the slogan “death to American dervishes”.
Western policy is increasingly reminiscent of Stan Laurel’s famous “nice mess” catchphrase. By overthrowing Gaddafi, the ill-thought-out Nato campaign in Libya dispersed thousands of heavily armed men into the Sahel states, where Islamist terrorists have piggybacked to power amidst military mutinies and separatist campaigns.
Northern Mali, an area the size of Spain, is controlled by two groups — Ansar Dine and Mujao (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) — which are grimly implementing sharia. In Gao, a suspected cattle thief’s hand was hacked off, to cries of “God is great”. In a desert town called Aguelhok, a young couple accused of having a child out of wedlock were buried up to their necks and stoned to death. It took about a quarter of an hour for them to die, watched by silent members of the public.
This grim Islamist regimen has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee within Mali, and other Sahel states such as Niger, upsetting a delicate economy that has already been badly hit by drought. Worse, the only real source of potential relief — the regional powerhouse of Nigeria — has been plagued by an equally lethal Islamist movement (Boko Haram, or “Western education is forbidden”) in precisely those northern provinces from which grain could be shipped to the multiplying number of starving refugees from radical Islamism in the Sahel states.
So now, in addition to northern Mali becoming an Afghan-style safe haven for the world’s jihadist riff-raff, the entire Sahel belt of states is facing the prospect of starvation as well as the obliteration of the delicate religious eco-system that enabled Sufism to thrive for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, those mud shrines in Timbuktu are just the latest examples of this jihad, though their destruction is greatly to be regretted. It will be the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and Nigeria that will have to clean up Nato’s mess.