Valley Voices

Who’s protecting valuable libraries from terrorism?

Phil Unruh
Phil Unruh

A couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry declared the acts of Daesh, otherwise known as the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL, as genocidal. He specifically cited the killing of Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.

Yet the concept of genocide encompasses more than just the obvious act of killing, and it is not an act of convenient appropriation to say so.

The term “genocide” was invented by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer, in 1943 to describe the crimes he witnessed in his native Poland. Its artificiality, however useful, extends to its etymology: it combines the Greek genos for “people group” and the Latin derivative cide, the root of which means “to kill.” Genocide, then, is “the killing of a people.”

But killing a people can be more than just killing people. The idea of “a people” is more than that of a mass of bodies that happen to live together, but includes the fruits of their interactions: their culture, and the artifacts of that culture.

It is here that I would like to point to heinous acts that Kerry did not mention in his brief speech condemning genocide, though we have all heard pieces from the highlight reel: Daesh has been methodically destroying ancient cities and their contents. They bulldozed Nimrod, where the Tower of Babel was supposedly built. They recently blew up the gates of Nineveh, where Jonah was said to have preached.

There are many who say that the Islamic State is just the logical extension of some inherent violence in Islam. They are wrong. The above archaeological treasures were treasured not only for their own sake by Muslims at large, but, in the case of Jonah, built a mosque in honor of a man’s service to God. That, too, was destroyed.

Daesh has both official operatives and mere franchisees working from inspiration. It only takes a few people to subscribe to violent doctrine to hurt the world. What many people do not realize is that, as with the destruction of the Mosque of Jonah, Islamic culture is being hurt, too.

It is not just the Shiite Muslims mentioned by Kerry, but also the Sunni.

In 2012, a few crazy extremists took over the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali. When they were expelled in 2013, they burned parts of the manuscript collection there. The city is said to have more than 700,000 manuscripts, scattered all over in private and public libraries. Many citizens keep these books hidden in their homes because they are so precious to them.

These manuscripts contain books on everything, as Timbuktu was once an important university town. At one time, it had more than 25,000 students studying astronomy, medicine (including surgery), law and philosophy.

Nobody talks of their achievements: they have barely been cataloged by Western scholars. Yet we are missing out on an important part of African history, of Islamic history, and perhaps even Western history.

Aristotle, considered with Plato to be the cornerstones of Western philosophy, was preserved for us by Arabic translations. We do not even have all of his works. Where are his analyses of the constitutions of all of Greece? We only have his discussion of Athens. Where are his philosophical dialogues? None have survived.

It is not that these books weren’t worth protecting, but that they weren’t protected. Think of the monasteries at York and Jarrow that were burned by the Vikings, or those later destroyed by Henry VIII. Think of the library at Alexandria, which was at least partially destroyed several times before its death-knell came toward the fall of Rome.

Any time a library is destroyed, world heritage loses pieces to the puzzle of its history.

The oldest library in the world, functioning since 859, is in Fez, Morroco. In addition to Timbuktu, Mali has a second manuscript treasure in the city of Djenne. Mauritania has Chinguetti. These are countries of Arabs and blacks who are mostly Sunni Muslim, all of which are in West Africa.

We never think of “scholarship” when we think of these countries, yet here are these magnificent libraries with hundreds of thousands of books. We do not talk much about the history of the Americans that were enslaved before being brought to this country, but here is their ancient scholarly tradition.

We do not talk at all about the West African philosophers who had books on Western-sounding ideas, including not only women’s rights, but animal rights!

These treasure troves are susceptible not just to large militant movements like Daesh, but to the rogue actions of a few hotheads. Both can be genocidal. Furthermore, by doing nothing to prevent harm to these collections and to preserve them digitally for future generations, we are enabling a genocide.

This is a killing of the culture of Islam, of West Africa, of African Americans who originated there, and even of our own “Western” culture. Like the Muslims in Iraq and Syria, we must value things for their inherent value, as well as for their personal value.

And who knows, maybe in our acts of preservation we may find some lost dialogue of The Philosopher himself.

Phil Unruh grew up in Fresno and is a student at Fresno State. Write to him at,