[In this Oct. 19, 2012 photo, men pray beside the tombs of locally venerated Islamic saints, whose mausoleums were destroyed by Islamist group Ansar Dine, in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo)]
When I first journeyed to Bamako to research Sufism in Mali in 2006, my American students generally asked two questions: Where is Mali and what is Sufism? Today, the answer to both of these questions is found daily in the headline news.
The Union of Sufi Brotherhoods in Tunisia has reported that thirty-four shrines have been attacked since Tunisians forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile. The issue was set on the national agenda earlier this month when the legendary 13th century mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said was set on fire, destroying not just the interior of the tomb but several manuscripts as well. Further, since January 2011, at least twenty-five Sufi shrines in Egypt have been attacked. Numerous Egyptian governorates, such as al-Minufyia and Aswan, have reported acts of violence to the government’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments and public prosecutors, and asked for state protection for Sufi structures. The question remains—why has the international community not rushed to the aid of these desecrated shrines throughout North Africa as they have in Mali?
Just as suicide bombings have a contagion effect, so too does the destruction of Sufi shrines and the religious and political ideology behind it. Beyond North Africa, recent attacks on Mali’s Sufi heritage fit well into wider international patterns of attacks on Sufi heritage and Sufi worshippers, which comes as little surprise, since Mali’s northern region has increasingly become more “international” with a number of leading extremist forces gathering in the region to lend their support. Recent attacks on Sufi “space” stretch all the way to Kashmir and Pakistan, where over fifty shrines have been attacked, such as those of Rahman Baba, Shaykh Nisa Baba, Shaykh Bahadur Baba, Sakhi Sarwar, and Ali ibn Usman al-Hujwiri.
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