By Jemal Oumar
Islamist Touareg rebels in control of northern Mali moved to enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law last month, provoking the ire of Timbuktu residents.
Al-Qaeda linked rebels Ansar al-Din began a crackdown May 22nd in which they banned football, the shaving of beards, television and smoking as religious taboos.
Groups organised by the Islamists to patrol neighbourhoods in Timbuktu have raided markets and seized boxes of cigarettes, burning them in front of shoppers, Ikdal Ag Ennour, a resident of Timbuktu and a smoker, told Magharebia.
“The extremists may be able to prohibit the sale of cigarettes at Timbuktu market, and they can also seize and burn all that they put their hands on, but they just can’t prevent people from smoking,” he said.
“Those Islamists are living in an illusion when they think that they can control convictions and prevent hobbies,” Ag Ennour added.
Another Timbuktu resident, Mohamed Cissé, told Magharebia: “We’ve never heard from any Muslim cleric and we’ve never read in any book that the Islamic Sharia prohibits smoking, playing football or shaving the beard. There are even some Muslim faqihs and scholars who smoke.”
“The great irony is that those people are preventing us from smoking while they are allying with al-Qaeda, a group that deals with traffickers of cigarettes and drugs and that sometimes even deals in these items to get money to buy weapons and recruit new agents,” he added. “What justice is that – and what logic is that?”
For his part, Oussman Ag, a young man, was harsher in his criticism of this situation when he said: “Ansar al-Din went beyond banning the shaving of beards and playing football to preventing motorcycles that carry a man and a woman at the same time.”
“Their madness has gone even further, as they also started breaking people’s TV sets out of fear that they might watch scenes considered to be prohibited. They also insist on removing the yellow colour from the Azawad state flag to put the white colour in its place so that they may write the phrase ‘No god but Allah’.”
The Islamic radicals justified the measures against residents by saying their goal was “to make Timbuktu a city free from cigarettes and all manifestations that violate God’s Sharia. Timbuktu, from which Islam has historically spread to West Africa, shouldn’t be a secular city where immorality spreads,” Ansar al-Din official spokesperson Sanad Ould Bouamama said.
But the Ansar al-Din crackdown was met with resentment among the city’s young people, with clashes breaking out the same day they were imposed. One young man reportedly sustained a gunshot wound from the incident.
Meanwhile, the extremists continue to desecrate heritage sites in the ancient city. On May 23rd, the Islamists destroyed the town’s martyrs monument to those killed during the 1991 Bamako demonstrations against General Moussa Traoré’s regime.
“The Islamists have justified this act by saying that no signs may be placed on the graves of those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of people’s freedom because their struggle was not for the sake of God,” Issa Ag El Ouli told Magharebia.