Another Perspective

Reflections on Timbuktu

We too have seen impassioned minds ready to destroy priceless parts of our own heritage.

By 1.30.13

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Like most bibliophiles, I was saddened by reports that Islamic militants fleeing Timbuktu had set fire to a library containing irreplaceable medieval Islamic manuscripts. I don’t know whether Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, is right to claim that these manuscripts contained “the wisdom of the ages,” but I do agree that their destruction is a “desecration to humanity.”

As it happens, I’m currently reading a collection of essays by the late Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, and while wondering what could possibly motivate Muslims to destroy priceless parts of their own heritage, I came across this description of his encounter with the New Left:

When I was leaving Poland at the end of 1968, I had a somewhat vague idea of what the radical student movement and different leftist groups or parties might be. What I saw and read I found pathetic and disgusting in nearly all (still, not all) cases.… What impressed me was mental degradation of a kind I had never seen before in any leftist movement. I saw young people trying to ‘“reconstitute” universities and to liberate them from horrifying, savage, monstrous fascist oppression… In several cases in the U.S., the vanguard of the oppressed toiling masses set fire to university libraries (irrelevant pseudo-knowledge of the Establishment).

Kolakowski didn’t say how many American students participated in campus book-burnings, and a quick Google search revealed that no one really knows. Estimates vary from Kirkpatrick Sales’ claim that as many as one million people participated in “rioting, trashing, assaults on buildings and confrontations with the police,” to Dan Grorgakas’ assertion that “the number of people who participated in armed struggle numbered in the hundreds.”

But whatever the precise number, it’s clear that there was a hard-core group of New Leftists who thought that destroying libraries and other outposts of bourgeois culture was a great idea, and a much larger group of young people who disapproved of actual arson, but who, in light of the Vietnam war, sympathized with the New Left jihadists and their grievances.

The situation throughout the Muslim world today does not seem all that different from the situation on American campuses in the late sixties and early seventies. There, too, there are a minority of Islamist fanatics who think that burning down libraries – and murdering or mutilating “the sons of pigs and apes” (aka “fascist pigs”) who disapprove of such activities – are meritorious acts, and a much larger number of otherwise decent Muslims who, in light of such ongoing atrocities as Afghanistan, Iraq, and “Palestine,” sympathize with the Islamists.

I don’t know what will happen to the Malian Islamists who escaped from Timbuktu. Most of them, I imagine, will be hunted down and killed by the Malian army, but some may live to brag about their exploits to their children and grandchildren. Nor do I know what happened to our own New Leftists – numbering somewhere between several hundred and one million – who created such havoc back in the days of LBJ and RN. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if some of these ex-radicals are now gainfully employed by the CIA, helping to wage what used to be called the “War on Terror.” These former enragés needn’t look to obscure Islamic texts or dense sociological treatises to understand what makes the Islamists tick. All they need to do is recall the promptings of their own hearts, and the strength of their own passions.

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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.