Slaying Saints and Torching Texts

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Emily O'Dell in Jadaliyya:

Cultural heritage in Mali is under attack. But just as the armed conflict there is not simply a battle between Islamic extremists and a weak Malian army supported by the French, nor is the destruction of Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts merely the result of an iconoclastic and intolerant religious fanaticism. While these violent attacks on Mali’s Islamic heritage are indeed tragic, they are sadly not isolated or unique. Sufi shrines have come under widespread assault in the past several years in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Kashmir—and similar bouts of destruction have occurred throughout Islamic history. Sufi shrines and Sufi “bodies”—of both saints and worshippers—have recently been attacked by a wide variety of Islamists for a multitude of reasons: to repudiate grave visitation, to discourage belief in the intercessory power of deceased mystics, to oppose the government, to resist foreign occupation, to call for national liberation, and to protest the US funding of various Sufi initiatives throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. While these attacks on Sufi heritage have been widespread, it is only in Mali that attacks on Sufi shrines have been used to bolster the case for foreign intervention.

In mid-January at a meeting with representatives of the International Committee of Blue Shield at the World Archaeological Conference in Jordan, we discussed the “grave” situation in Mali, and the archaeological ethics of whether or not archaeologists should collaborate with the military to protect Mali’s cultural heritage. While archaeologists and anthropologists before 2001 traditionally steered clear of such collaboration, over the past decade, scholars have been working in tandem with the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Syria to provide maps—and even baseball cards—of cultural heritage sites to be protected. Having done research myself on Sufi shrines in both Mali and Afghanistan, the parallel could not be more striking between the current international outcry by scholars and the media over the desecration of Sufi heritage in Mali, and the international hysteria and politicization of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, which was also used to build the case for a foreign military intervention in Afghanistan.

Just as the Taliban were vilified as intolerant fundamentalists incapable of grasping the importance of so-called “universal” concepts such as art, history, and world heritage, so too are groups like Ansar Deine being framed as “savages” and “barbarians.” Such a reductive analysis frames heritage solely as a victim, instead of a weapon of war cleverly employed to attract media attention, garner support and legitimacy among regional and international Islamists, and provide potent religious symbolism.

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