A different kind of evil is threatening another African UNESCO site in war-torn Mali: the ancient shrines of Timbuktu. Over the past week, al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have attacked at least eight of the famous shrines with rifles, axes, and shovels. So far, Obama hasn't said or done anything about it.
Unfortunately, the United States cut off funding to UNESCO last year to protest the agency's decision to grant the Palestinian Authority full state membership. A 1994 congressional measure bars American aid to any U.N. agency that gives state recognition to an "organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood." The target, of course, was Palestine.
Last month, UNESCO designated Palestine's first World Heritage Site: the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. The decision raised hackles in Washington and Jerusalem, where it was seen as part of an effort to embarrass Israel and promote Palestinian statehood outside the peace process.
That's probably true, but it's a bad reason to cut off an agency that does so much good. Obama should call on Congress to restore American aid to UNESCO, which accounted for 22 percent of the agency's funding. I hope he also condemns the attacks on the Timbuktu shrines, which commemorate important saints within the Sufi branch of Islam.
Historically, Sufis have emphasized interfaith tolerance and women's rights. Both are anathema to the Islamist rebels in Mali, who have vowed to destroy every shrine in Timbuktu. "All of this is haram," or forbidden, a spokesman for the group said, denouncing the shrines as idolatrous. "We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?"
Here's what: It's our chief international organization for defending and preserving human diversity, including different faiths. To be sure, it's often been a focus of political and ideological invective. But that's all the more reason for America to participate in UNESCO, rather than scooping up our marbles and going home.
That's what we did in 1984, when the United States withdrew entirely from UNESCO to protest its campaign to establish a New World Information and Communication Order. According to American officials, the code threatened press freedom.
But in September 2002, George W. Bush wisely rejoined the UNESCO fold, partly to counter criticism of the United States' go-it-alone approach in the Middle East. "America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning," he said.
Now it's time for President Obama to step up. As al-Qaeda and its Islamist henchmen gain a foothold in North Africa, we should be doing everything we can to stop them. That should include public diplomacy to protect the Timbuktu shrines, which embody many of the values that we hold dear — and that Islamists despise.
That might require Obama to make peace with UNESCO and anger Israel, which would be risky in an election year. Yet the attacks on Timbuktu present an opportunity to put America firmly behind tolerance and against fanaticism in the Islamic world. We shouldn't pass that up.
Last weekend, I took my students to the slave castles in Ghana. "These walls contain a brutality that we can't imagine," a guide at Elmina Castle told us. The walls of Timbuktu speak to a more ennobling truth about the ability of different peoples and religions to live together in peace. Let's make sure the world hears it, loud and clear.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University history professor who lives in Narberth, is teaching at the university's program in Ghana this summer. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).