The world has finally taken notice of Mali. The radical Islamist assault on that African country and France’s subsequent muscular intervention in its former colony staved off the collapse of the government and, for the moment, routed the al-Qaida-linked militants. 

Anti-religionists often describe religious faith as the culprit of atrocities, yet many of our most murderous tyrants believed in no god.

Stories coming out from the territory occupied by the militants have been eye-opening. The radicals used their ruthlessness to intimidate the population. They imposed harsh Shariah law, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic legal code that included assaults on women whose faces were not covered and the maiming or stoning of those accused of crimes. 

What was eye-opening was that all of this was being imposed on an Islamic society horrified by these excesses. “This is not Islam,” numerous interviewees told journalists when the fabled city of Timbuktu was liberated. Dancing and music, even ring tones on phones, were banned. The radicals wantonly destroyed the graves of Muslim saints (shrines were judged un-Islamic) and sought to destroy the magnificent historical heritage housed in Timbuktu’s museum and library.  

The symbolism of the al-Qaida assault on Mali should not be missed. Mali may mean little to most Westerners. We even use the word “Timbuktu” to suggest someplace in the middle of nowhere. But Mali, especially Timbuktu, was once the center of a vibrant Muslim culture and learning long before the United States was founded. Thousands of ancient manuscripts transcribed by Muslim scribes were housed there.  

Mali’s moderate version of Islam and its relative tolerance of other faiths made the assault by the radicals that much more significant. The attack on Timbuktu was an attack on Mali’s version of Islam. The burning of manuscripts and destruction of artworks was an attempt to eradicate an Islamic past judged insufficiently narrow and fanatical. 

Let those who have eyes see, and those who have ears hear: The fanatic justifies tyranny in his pursuit of purity, but it always ends in hatred and death. From Lenin and Stalin, to Hitler and Mao, to Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden, the obsessive pursuit of power to build the perfect kingdom, the perfect society, here on earth inevitably ends drenched in blood. 

Anti-religionists often describe religious faith as the culprit of such atrocities, yet many of our most murderous tyrants believed in no god but their own mission. Many Westerners blame it all on Islam, decrying it as a bloodthirsty creed, yet the victims of the violence in Mali were themselves Muslim. They were Muslims who hid the manuscripts and hailed the French who rescued them. They were Muslims who spoke out against the horrors, and Muslims who were killed for resisting. 

“What right do they have to impose the Shariah here?” one Islamic leader told a French Catholic newspaper. “Thank God (France) has intervened to protect us from those who wanted to conquer us and impose their way of living Islam.” 

There is an undeniable tension between East and West, between an increasingly materialistic West and an East roiled by social upheaval. There is also a tension between Christianity and Islam as two of the worldwide religions with worldviews that can be at times dramatically different. 

Yet it is important that we resist the temptation to oversimplify the dramatic clashes now taking place in the world. Indeed, the ultimate defeat of the radicals will likely come not simply by force of arms or an aggressive anti-Islamic polemic. Islamist extremists will ultimately be defeated because they will be rejected by other Muslims. Until that happens, alas, those most likely to suffer from such radicalism will continue to be fellow Muslims. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor