The world got a sample of the cultural sensitivities of al-Qaida-influenced Islamic extremists when, in 2001, the Taliban began dynamiting some of Afghanistan's greatest historical treasures -- notably, the two Bamiyan Buddhas carved into a towering cliff during the sixth century. One, at 165 feet high, was the world's largest standing Buddha.
There was a huge international outcry, but not much else. The Taliban went about their business of destroying representational figures, artworks they believed were outlawed by the Quran.
Now an al-Qaida-linked group is again threatening one of the world's great treasures: the West African city of Timbuktu, a fabled name synonymous with remoteness and romance. The Malian city is known for its delicate and fanciful architecture, its tombs of Sufi saints and, most importantly, its large and irreplaceable trove of manuscripts and scrolls, some of them 900 years old.
The main library holds about 30,000 Arabic manuscripts covering science, math, medicine and theology. The city has been sacked before, but the Malians were skilled in hiding their treasures. Thus, a trove that has been described as akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls in historical importance has been preserved.
That is, until fighters aligned with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb captured the city in April. They held it until Tuesday, when they were run out by the Malian army and 250 French paratroopers.
Now begins the grim task of totaling up the damage done by religious fanatics for whom vandalism has become a religious rite. It has yet to be determined how successful they were in burning its libraries, but many Sufi tombs were destroyed and desecrated.
Timbuktu, its architecture and its libraries are designated by the United Nations as a world historic treasure. That kind of mindless destruction alone justifies the rest of the world in joining Mali in expelling al-Qaida and -- because vandalism of such a site is a war crime under international law -- hauling its members before an international court.
Scripps Howard News Service