Terrorism and cultural destruction

We all remember when the Taliban blew up two huge Buddha statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan back in March 2001.  These religious objects, almost 1500 years old, were reduced to rubble when the extremists gleefully dynamited them and bragged about their act of demolition.  At the time, their crime made headlines around the world and was, in a way, a precursor to the attacks in New York and Washington six months later.

Unfortunately, this was not the only occasion on which sacred items have been destroyed, burned or irreparably damaged.  True, Islamic State has hogged the news of late, with its desecration of Palmyra, mosques, shrines, churches and ancient ruins.  But if we look hard enough we see that it has not been only Islamist extremists who shamefully demolished priceless artifacts.  The Spanish conquistadors burned countless “pagan” manuscripts in Mexico and Hindu and Buddhist nationalists have taken down mosques in India and Sri Lanka in recent years.

Thankfully, the world seems to be paying attention and is starting to bring the culprits to justice.  The International Criminal Court has launched a landmark case against a jihadi for his actions in Timbuktu (Mali) which resulted in the destruction of ancient shrines in 2012.  The court has claimed that these offences constitute a “callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations”.  The accused’s defence lawyer has countered that his client believed what he was doing was right and was seeking the means to allow good to triumph over evil (you can read an article on this case here).  Not surprisingly I side with the court on this one.  But the defence’s argument is interesting and sheds light on why extremists do these things.

I suppose it is easy to dismiss these kinds of abhorrent acts as nihilist ruin by barbarians, analogous to the various sackings of Rome by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, among others.   If we label these actors as uneducated and unthinking automatons, we can set them aside as not like us and move on.  Except that this would be a mistake in the case of IS and its fellow travelers.

As hard as it may be for us to accept, there is an underlying rationality to these acts of destruction and we need to understand this in order to confront, and eventually defeat, it.  Aside from the shock value and the “in-your-face” nature of these events, there are at least two major related ideological drivers behind them.  The first speaks to the notion, prevalent among Islamist extremists, that Islam – or rather their warped interpretation of Islam – is the only faith worthy of recognition.  The Egyptian father of modern Islamist extremism, Sayyid Qutb, wrote of the era of jahiliyya – ignorance – i.e. the time before Islam (so, anything up to the early 7th century CE).  Extremists claim that the Prophet Muhammad brought a message that was to dispel ignorance, introduce God’s governance on Earth and replace all earlier faiths.  Any symbol – building, book, art, etc. – that recalls the pre-Islamic age of darkness must thus be destroyed as it serves only to remind people of the time before Islamic enlightenment.  So this would include Christian and Jewish symbols, as well as Yazidi, Manichean, Zoroastrian, etc., and anything Greek or Roman.

The second concerns the notion of shirk.  This is a concept that states that God (Allah) can have no partners (unlike in Christianity or Hinduism) and is thus one in nature (known as tawhid in Islam).  Anything that suggests that God has equals or anything that takes believers away from the true worship of God alone, must be eliminated.  Hence, tombs, saints, shrines, churches, art must all go lest they become themselves objects of veneration.  The Mali incident fits into this category and the Wahabbis are masters of this type of thinking.

Extremists do not like a good debate.  They live in a world of absolutes – black/white, right/wrong.  Having this mindset forces you to actively oppose anything that does not fit into your reality.  Ignoring difference or having a tolerant “live and let live” attitude is not possible.  Extremists fully believe that it is their mission to violently get rid of all that is, in their view, wrong.  This might explain the statement made by the defence lawyer cited above, a sort of “my client had no choice”.

Except that the defendant did have a choice as do all his extremist buddies.  Extremism does not occur via osmosis – it is consciously adopted.  This mentality is, however, not mainstream Islam or mainstream anything else for that matter.  It is a aberration that leads to crimes against humanity and must be resisted irrespective of which “faith” is driving it.

While the various international criminal bodies do not have a stellar success record I do hope that this trial sets a precedent.  I do not believe it will act as a deterrent for future crimes against culture and faith but at a minimum the global community can see justice served.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply