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Timbuktu and the Politics of Fundamentalism

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As the American presidential campaign swings into high gear, recent events in the fabled city of Timbuktu remind us of the very real social and cultural costs of religious and political fundamentalism. For us, Timbuktu is the famed destination of such great European explorers as Mungo Park and Rene Caille. Timbuktu is synonymous with remote romanticism. For scholars of Islam, however, Timbuktu is a saintly site renowned for great libraries -- centers of Islamic learning -- that have housed precious (and fragile) medieval manuscripts. Timbuktu is also famed for architecturally masterful tombs constructed to honor the pious lives of saintly Muslim scholars.

In recent weeks, scholars concerned about African cultural heritage have been worried that the Islamists, who have consolidated their control of the most famous city in Mali, would destroy the sacred tombs and burn the sacred manuscripts both of which they denigrate as sacrilegious. During the past weeks those fears have been realized.

Writing in the July 8 edition of the New York Times, Benjamin Soares, an expert on Islamic traditions and practices in Mali, described Islamist desecration in Timbuktu.

In the past week, Islamists have destroyed and desecrated the tombs of Muslim saints in the fabled town of Timbuktu in northern Mali, recalling the Taliban's 2001 destruction of two giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

In defiance of the West and many local Muslims, Islamists in northern Mali are prohibiting people from worshiping at tombs and erecting structures on graves. Although both practices are widespread throughout the Muslim world, religious extremists consider them un-Islamic and are seeking to stamp them out.

The desecration of Timbuktu's heritage sites is one consequence of the insidious global sweep of religious and political fundamentalism. Religious and political fundamentalists see the world in narrow, simplistic and absolute terms. They see themselves as the righteous gatekeepers of religious and political purity. There is no room to debate on social, cultural or political issues. There is a right and wrong way of doing things and those who don't adhere to the path of righteousness should be defeated and eventually eliminated.

The events in Timbuktu may seem far removed from what transpires socially and politically in America, but the parallels are sobering. The marriage of politics and religious fundamentalism has not yet resulted in the wholesale destruction of American heritage sites, but fundamentalist belief and action has the potential to be profoundly destructive in America.

Consider these examples:

-- Tennessee now has a law that allows instructors to teach creationist "intelligent design" theories of evolution. These are "theories" that challenge -- quite bogusly -- the fundamental principles of Darwinian evolution, which have withstood more than 150 years of rigorous scientific scrutiny. Scientific theories that do not adhere to the myths of religious creation must be challenged or eventually replaced.

-- In Louisiana, there is an adopted textbook that suggests that the presence of the Loch Ness monster, which locals suggest can only be "seen" after the consumption of one or more bottles of local whiskey, "indicates" that dinosaurs and human beings co-exist, which, in turn, demonstrates the power of the creationist theory of evolution. Myth trumps science.

-- In Texas, the state GOP party platform has come out against the teaching of critical thinking, suggesting that such thinking subverts parental authority -- father knows best.

-- In Texas again, Governor Rick Perry said his state would not comply with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which, in the case of Medicaid expansion, means that Texas will refuse $164 billion dollars in federal funds to provide health care to the uninsured. In his statement Governor Perry stated:

We in Texas have no intention to implement so-called state exchanges or to expand Medicaid under Obamacare... I will not be party to socializing health care and bankrupting my state in direct contradiction to our Constitution and our founding principles of limited government.

So on the basis of a fundamentalist political ideology, Governor Perry will proudly expand the numbers of uninsured people in Texas, which already has the highest percentage of uninsured people of any America state.

Texas, of course, is not alone in using fundamentalist political ideology to "stamp out" "erroneous " thinking or dismantle programs that do not conform to its image of ideological purity. The GOP governors of Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, to name a few, have vowed to protect their states from the federal government's "socialist" incursions, which in the case of health care, puts millions of their citizens at risk.

American religious and political fundamentalism is not limited to the states. Consider the political fundamentalism of the GOP controlled House of Representatives. Last summer the GOP House members marched like sheep as they pledged to never raise taxes. If you take this ideological position, it means that the only way to control the federal deficit is to lower taxes while cutting domestic spending. Such a tack means that you have to shrink government by dismantling, among many programs, the federal government's social safety net. The fundamentalist intransigence of the GOP-controlled House brought the nation to the brink of the unthinkable -- an unprecedented federal government default on its debt.

Although I could provide many more examples of how fundamentalist-inspired GOP state and federal officials have attempted to limit access to women's reproductive health services or disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters, it is clear that fundamentalist thinking, no matter where it practiced, is narrow-minded and uncompromisingly resolute. There is no room for debate and less room for compromise. No matter where it is practiced fundamentalist-inspired political action dismantles and destroys the social fabric of a polity, leaving in its wake the rubble of a sacred tomb in Timbuktu or the shambles of government health care programs the presence of which could be a matter of life and death for millions of Americans.

Is American fundamentalism so very different from the practices of the radical Islamists who, in the uncompromising name of Islamic purity, have disfigured and destroyed the cultural treasures of Timbuktu?