On January 29, it was widely reported in the western media that Islamist extremists fleeing Timbuktu as French and Malian forces closed in on the desert city torched the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state of the art archival, conservation and research facility containing hundreds of thousands of historic medieval manuscripts written in Arabic, Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara on subjects as diverse as math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, history, botany and geography. The sensationalized media coverage immediately claimed that thousands had been destroyed, even though only a limited number of items were damaged or stolen, and there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.
Before these reports surfaced, Samuel Sidibe, the director of Mali’s National Museum, asked Ansar Dine to allow the Red Cross to evacuate the manuscripts. Just as artifacts like the Buddhas of Bamiyan or Sufi shrines and the “remains” of mystics have been framed as “bodies” being “sacrificed” for a purified Islam by Islamists, and as “bodies” in need of rescue by the international media and cultural heritage experts, this appeal to the Red Cross to “evacuate” manuscripts suggests that texts too have become equated with the same “value” and vulnerability as living bodies, being just as susceptible to the terror of Islamists. Not surprisingly, Ansar Dine rejected these appeals, much as the Taliban rejected appeals to save the Bamiyan Buddhas by arguing that all they were destroying were “stones,” in contrast to the human “lives” being lost through famine and drought. Nevertheless, the fact that the media misreported—whether intentionally or unintentionally–the torching of texts reveals a hysteria about the susceptibility of the written word itself to terror. If artifacts like the Buddhas and structures like the shrines can be terrorized like bodies, why not texts?