The burning of Sufi manuscripts by Sunni radicals in Timbuktu is the latest event in a campaign of iconoclasm. Ansar Dine, the Salafi organisation that has been terrorising Mali in recent times, has been imposing its abhorrent orthodoxy on the ruins of numerous sacred mosques and mausoleums in what represents the cultural equivalent of genocide.
Mali is in the news now, of course, but the erasure of the heritage of Sufism from the region is widespread. Shrines, libraries and mosques in Libya have been destroyed to the helplessness or indifference of authorities and the enthusiastic applause of Saudi clerics. Civilisations that took centuries to build are being despoiled in a matter of weeks.
In Tunisia, dozens of shrines are said to have been torched in the last year, and gatherings of Sufis have been assaulted by violent Salafists. In Egypt, believers have had to form human shields around their shrines to protect them from harm. One of them, the Sheikh Zuwayed Mausoleum, has faced three attacks in the last years: two bombings and one rocket-propelled grenade. The Arab Spring, to use an unoriginal but apt phrase, has turned into a Sufi winter.
In other parts of the Islamic world sectarian conflict and terrorism has led to innumerable deaths among Shia minorities. The Shia of Quetta in Pakistan, says Danya Hasan of Human Rights Watch, “live under siege”. This month a suicide bomber walked into a snooker club and killed 82 people. Last week the latest in a series of attacks on places of worship and residential districts in Iraq claimed 23 lives in a village north of Baghdad. Even in Indonesia Shia houses have been burned down and their occupants relocated.
Islamic sectarianism, like the assaults on Christian civilisations in the region, is destroying hundreds of lives and thousands of years of history. Yet despite the scale of the damage these attacks are causing, and despite the magnitude of the hatred they are built upon, and even despite the fact that sectarian stirrings are eerily prevalent in Britain, one hears little of them in mainstream commentary. People have become suddenly energised by Mali but this is because it is the object of a war. Libya, which is still being thought of as a great success, and Iraq, which has been forgotten as an embarrassing failure, are on next to no one’s lips. As for Pakistan, well, that is too damn depressing for most people to think about.
Where, though, I wonder, are the people who tend to fret about “Islamophobia”? You would think that this would be of interest to them. The supremacist assumptions, demonisation of minorities and eliminationist assertions of the resultant hatred meet and exceed all of the criteria for the anti-Muslim bigotry they strive to diagnose. That they ignore it is a consequence of the selectivity with which they perceive perpetrators but also has something to do with the unpleasant fact that the supremacist intolerance it is evidence of confirms some of the fears that they dismiss as dangerously unwarranted.