The slow acceptance that destroying cultural heritage is a war crime

AHMAD Al-FAQI AL-MAHDI is probably not the world’s most terrible wrecker of cultural and spiritual heritage, but as he regretfully admitted, he was party to the destruction of some shrines in his homeland, Mali. These were places which have been recognised over the centuries as an important locus of prayer and pilgrimage, and as testimonies to a once-great civilisation. This week he made history: he was sentenced to nine years in prison in The Hague by the International Criminal Court , which is supposed to try the world’s most egregious misdeeds but has only managed to jail a handful of people during its 14 years of existence. The verdict was hailed as an important legal milestone: the first time such a prestigious court had so explicitly recognised the destruction of religious and cultural patrimony as a war crime.

Mr Mahdi’s misdeed was to organise and participate in the destruction of structures made of mud and stone which had been erected long ago over the graves of revered Islamic holy men and scholars. The vandalism happened in the summer of 2012; that was a time when two ultra-militant Muslim groups, al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine, temporarily took control of the north of the country and imposed their zealous version of Islam which considers such shrines to be a polytheistic distraction from the worship of the one God. Mr Mahdi, acting as a kind of adviser on “morality” to Ansar Dine, came after some hesitation to the conclusion that the shrines needed destroying, and said so in a sermon which was read out at Friday prayers. He has since changed his mind and apologised for his role. In a sense, the court was being asked to adjudicate between different readings of the Muslim faith: between one which regarded the shrines, and the whole surrounding city of Timbuktu (pictured), as a cherished monument to the spread of Islam in Africa, and a more puritanical view which regarded such structures as idolatrous.

The court did not seem discomfited by this role, and it handed down a sentence at the low end of the scale in view of the perpetrator’s remorse. But important as it was, the precedent is unlikely to be followed soon in parts of the world where the destruction of religious and cultural monuments is taking place on an even wider scale. In Yemen, mosques, priceless artefacts and manuscripts are being destroyed in a sectarian civil war in which Western-supplied weapons are being used. Parts of Syria and Iraq are under the control of a terrorist group which boasts of its determination to destroy traces of any world-view or civilisation other than its own ultra-zealous form of Sunnni Islam. But neither Yemen, Syria or Iraq are members of the ICC; that means the court cannot act there unless there is an explicit mandate from the UN Security Council which would require America and Russia agreeing.

But the trial of Mr Mahdi will have served some purpose if it makes people think harder about cultural vandalism as a means of waging war, up to and including genocidal war. The destruction of cultural heritage in wartime (clearly banned by the Geneva Conventions and the 1954 Hague Convention) takes many forms, and they need to be dissected.

Sometimes the damage is “collateral” in the sense that the cultural/spiritual objects were not the main target. When Allied bombers flattened the churches of Cologne and Dresden (along with many other buildings and people, of course) they were not primarily concerned with annihilating German Christianity. Nor did any Nazi bombers set out for England with the main intention of destroying the great English cathedral in Coventry, as they did in 1940. Nor was Nagasaki’s Urakami cathedral, the largest Christian structure in the Asia-Pacific region, a particular object of that city’s annihilation in 1945. But in a campaign of almost total war, the wrecking of spiritual structures was almost as inevitable as the terrible human and material toll.

In another category of vandalism, the motive is commercial rather than ideological, military or vindictive; the fog of war or occupation creates perfect conditions for the random looting of precious objects, including religious objects, for monetary gain.

And sometimes the motive for destruction really is religious fanaticism, which is not always the same as waging total war against an alien group. If you sincerely believe that certain forms of religious structure, or the worship they inspire, are an offence against God, then you may feel compelled to destroy them wherever you find them, including in your own country and among your own people. Perhaps that describes the case of Mr Mahdi, who was not an outsider to Timbuktu. Oliver Cromwell, leader of the English Puritans in the 17th century, had a similar impulse, as did the iconoclasts of eighth-century Byzantium, and King Josiah in ancient Jerusalem.

And a bit separately from all the above, there is a category of cultural/spiritual destruction which clearly does overlap with genocide, in other words the effort to destroy an entire group of human beings, as defined by (for example) language, ethnicity or religon. Wrecking precious objects or spiritual monuments which are held dear by the targeted group, and seen as part of their collective identity, can be an important part of the destructive project. It demoralises the victims while they are still around, and once the cleansing is complete, it removes all evidence that they ever existed. That was a feature of warfare in South-eastern Europe in the late 20th century, and decent people found it outrageous, even if the outrage was rather selective. (People who were appalled by the dynamiting of mosques by the Bosnian Serbs didn’t usually care that much about the destruction or looting of Orthodox churches in Kosovo or Cyprus; and vice-versa.)

The terrorist group whose labels include Daesh and Islamic State seems unusual in combining elements of all the above-listed impulses: vindictiveness, ideology, commercial gain, and determination to wipe out rival groups. But respectable people in relatively placid parts of the world should ask themselves whether they are party, however indirectly, to abetting cultural vandalism perpetrated under cover of war. If you know where to shop, you can probably go to the wealthiest districts of certain Western cities and procure objects from Mali, looted during the time when Mr Mahdi and his friends held sway.


This article was originally published by the Economist and is available here