Muslims vs Jihadists: A Letter from Mali

I wrote this originally in February 2014, after returning from my trip to Mali as part of a fact-fighting and training visit with the Blue Shield. I decided back then it was too cheesy, and did not post it. After what happened in Bamako yesterday, and because many people I meet, wrongly, believe the terrorists represent a part of Malian society, I thought I should publish it anyway.


At 6:00 sharp, I was awakened by the plaintive call of the muezzin resonating over Sevare, a military-base town of about 40,000 in central Mali. At 06:02, a second sound, coming from a different direction, superimposed itself. It was church bells, ringing on top of a muezzin call for prayer – a musical mash-up that raised hairs.

“Doesn’t sound too extremist, right?,” I tweeted from my army-issue cot in the bare-bones hotel room. I had been struggling to understand the fierce, relentless – while not always effective – fight that Malians had put up against the Jihadist invaders in 2012. Maybe this mash-up was the answer, I thought to myself. While being nearly universally Muslim, Malians were tolerant to their core, and couldn’t care less if a Christian church-bell (making a disproportionate noise to please a mere 1% of the population) interrupted their sleep. It was this tolerance, I thought, that must have enraged the militant jihadists who had tried to subjugate the country, and change their ways. And it was this mash-up that Malians refused to give up.

Over the following week of crisscrossing this huge country as part of a military convoy of Malian soldiers fighting Islamist terrorists, I tried to crystallize my fledgling spark of comprehension of the difference between “Muslims” and “Jihadists”, that is so often lost on non-Muslims. And I finally got it, in Timbuktu, of all places.

Timbuktu, that little town just off the edge of the world, had fallen to jihadist rule on March 30th 2012, and it was not liberated until nearly a year later. I was visiting it in January 2014, along with my friend Karl Habsburg who was there to train the Malian military in the non-intuitive art of protecting monuments of cultural heritage, during the bloodiest of wars (yep, Monuments Men stuff, except not as poorly acted out).

It was here that the jihadists had done their best to convert Muslims to “the correct kind of Muslims”. And had miserably failed, not only because the French flew in to kick them out of town, but also because they couldn’t convert a single soul. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

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  “Welcome to Timbuktu, the town of the 333 saints”

read the inscription on this building in downtown Timbuktu before the jihadists took over to town. The 333 saints in question were all Muslim. That wasn’t good enough for the jihadists. Their interpretation of the Koran forbade any semblance of idolatry other than for their prophet. Up went the erasers.

The jihadistP (98)s’ next target were the remains of those unholy saints. They ransacked local mosques in search of idolatry, and blew up all graves they could find. Fortunately, they couldn’t identify them all, as local Imams shrewdly erased the saints’ names from most of the grave sites, confusing the jihadists as to what was to be obliterated and what not.

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Next on the jihadists’ laundry list were the Timbuktu manuscripts – the largest collection of written knowledge south of the Sahara. The Timbuktu archive had become the gathering place for tens of thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic between 13th and 19th centuries, containing single-copy texts: ranging from theological works, through grammar treatises, to formulas for medication against impotence. The manuscripts, some of them written in liquid gold, had for centuries been kept in a diversified “tribal cloud”, a sort of an analog torrent system where families and tribes would hold, in trust for humanity, a small portion of the total knowledge; usually a single manuscript at a time. None of the families could read the manuscripts, as they didn’t speak or read Arabic, but they knew, from prior generations, that they were to take care of them as if they were holy books.

It hadn’t been easy for the Malian government to persuade the families to hand over the manuscripts to a central safe-keeping institution, as they did not trust anyone could take care of their individual piece of knowledge as well as they did themselves. To persuade families to hand over the manuscript for safekeeping and protection from the elements, the government came up with a ruse: initially they organized a bank-type safe deposit box system: only the families had the keys to their respective safe-box which hosted their precious manuscripts. It took years before the families trusted the government enough to allow their manuscripts to be “released” into what became the Ahmed Baba Institute.

When the jihadists came, they made it their top priority to destroy all manuscripts; science and (Islamic) theology writings alike. The manuscripts were impure; they broadened the scope of knowledge beyond what the jihadists wanted be known, and believed.

The Institute’s researchers knew that this was coming, so during the days of fighting off the jihadists’ invasion in 2012, they moved many of the most precious manuscripts into unlit cellars, and smuggled back others to their original trustee families.

The researchers had to sacrifice some manuscripts – about 5,000, estimated the chief of the Ahmed Baba Institute – and left them to be found, to be burned, so that the jihadists would feel gratified, and not look too meticulously for the rest.

Needless to say, the jihadists went crazy over Timbuktu residents’ tolerance for other religions.  They pillaged the local Catholic church, and defaced a wooden statute of Mary. They had less luck trying to wrangle away the steel cross on top of the church; they managed to bend it somewhat, but could not fully remove it, and finally left it in place.P (168).JPG

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But the Jihadists’ main goal was to change the ways of life of Malians.

Local residents told us the Jihadists had tried to introduce the strictest, most cruel form of sharia law upon Timbuktu residents.

Music was banned.  This was especially cruel in a town that loved music, and for years had hosted a world-music festival, Festival au Désert.

Color, and diversity became crimes. This tailor, Seydou, told me he was forced to stop making “fancy” clothes and start sowing only three sizes of trousers: long, middle and short. Girth and color were to be universal.

Women, no surprise here, were told they couldn’t leave their homes without a male relative. Girls as young as 13, if found walking alone or in groups with their friends, were rounded up and taken to their fathers, who were then forced to hand them out in marriage, with the mahr, the Islamic reverse dowry, being forfeited in favor of the jihadists.

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Boys were scared they would be told they would be turned into soldiers and taught to kill.

Meet  Mohamed, an immensely sociable 12 year old boy, who turned 10 on the day when the jihadists came to town and shut down his father’s souvenir shop.  It had been just as well: no tourists were to drop in to get Timbuktu mementos from that day on.

Mohamed had been helping his father run the family shop after school, and had taught himself English, while communicating with the modest streak of non-French tourists who would occasionally brave the grueling 12-hour desert ride, to end up in Timbuktu. Over a couple of years, he had made dozens of friends from among the shop customers (watch the video to understand out why), and had collected a pile of visiting cards from foreigners from around the world.

When the jihadists took over Northern Mali, Mohamed was scared – not that he would die, not that he would be forced to kill, not even that his father couldn’t make a living now that there were no more tourists to frequent his shop. He was most scared that he would never be allowed to learn, he told me. His school was closed.

His teacher (on the photo below) – one of the most eloquent, and proud, philosophers I have ever spoken with – was forced to take a job as a butcher. P (175)

Then Mohamed got an idea. Locked up in his father disused shop, he started writing letters, dozens of letters, in French and in English, addressed to his “business-card buddies”. He wrote letters to friends in France, Finland, England, Australia, Russia, the US, and a whole bunch of other countries. All letters had the same plea:

“This is Mohamed from Timbuktu. I pray to you – please tell your government to send soldiers, to free us from the jihadists”.

He gave the letters, to be posted, to one of his father’s contacts who was smuggling goods in and out of occupied Timbuktu. Mohamed never saw that man again, but he told me he was sure the letters were posted, because

“one day the French soldiers did come, and liberated our town”.

Not everyone who had left Timbuktu came back. It was still not safe – it is still not safe today; and there are no tourists to be seen. The only Europeans here are the occasional UN staff, scurrying through the dirt roads in bullet-proof vans.

Abdramane asked us if the nuns from the Catholic church would come back soon. When the threat of jihadist invasion was imminent, the church staff had left Timbuktu, and a nun had asked him to keep an eye on the church. He was a caretaker at a nearby mosque, so he said he didn’t mind. He couldn’t save the church from pillaging, but he continued watering the plants, and is still closing and opening the gates when visitors ask to see it – now that the jihadists are gone.

We said we didn’t know.

The next morning, when the muezzin’s call awoke me in my room at a former hotel-turned-military-quarters, I had to wonder if, before the jihadists had come to town, the Catholic church bells had also been ringing, creating that surreal mash-up that defines Mali.


On January 2oth, 2015, Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim employee at a kosher supermarket in Paris, who helped save the lives of dozens of customers during the previous week’s deadly Charlie Hebdo-related attack, was awarded French citizenship. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve applauded the young man’s  act bravery, risking his own life to save the lives of customers from the Kalashnikov-yielding jihadist attackers.

“When he (the gunman) entered the store, people came rushing down saying there was an armed madman,” Bathily told FRANCE 24. “I thought the only option was to hide in the freezer, so I switched it off and got everyone inside.”

After police arrived, Bathily walked towards them with his hands up, and was mistaken for the attacker, forced to the ground and hand-cuffed for over an hour. It took the efforts of all the customers he had saved to convince the police he was the savior, not the attacker.

“I want to express my appreciation to the Mali citizen who helped save seven Jews”

Israeli PM Netanyahu said during a visit to the French capital’s Grand Synagogue.



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