Destroying History Is Now a Convictable War Crime
The Hague sentences a Malian Islamist to prison for destroying historical sites
by KEVIN KNODELL
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has made its first conviction on charges of destroying cultural sites. Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi pleaded guilty to destroying nine mausoleums and the door of an ancient mosque in the Malian city of Timbuktu during the Islamist occupation in 2012.
Mahdi originally faced up to 30 years in prison, but his admission of guilt led to a more lenient sentence of nine years.
The Hague court typically handles cases involving mass killings and human rights abuses such as torture. But lately, widespread destruction of cultural history by armed groups has raised the concerns of scholars and activists.
“Deliberate attacks on culture have become weapons of war in a global strategy of cultural cleansing seeking to destroy people as well as the monuments bearing their identities, institutions of knowledge and free thought,” UNESCO noted in a statement praising Mahdi’s conviction.
But destruction of culture isn’t new. It’s long been a hallmark of warfare, revolution and autocratic governance.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, members of the paramilitary Red Guards loyal to Mao Zedong destroyed countless artifacts and burned ancient art and scrolls. It was all part of Mao’s campaign to eliminate “superstition” and “backward” ideas that he argued were holding back the progress of China’s communist revolution.
After Mao’s death, Chinese leaders set to work picking up the pieces. One of their priorities was to salvage and repair ancient cultural sites wherever possible. Today, most Chinese look back on the Cultural Revolution with a sense of regret.
“After the Cultural Revolution, people became critical,” Sidney Rittenberg, an American who participated in the revolution told War Is Boring in a 2015 interview. “There will never be another infallible doctrine in China.”
Genocidal regimes such as the Nazis and Khmer Rouge embraced the destruction of cultural sites as part of their campaigns to eradicate everything — and everyone — deemed undesirable. But in recent years, radical Islamists with a professed aim to eliminate idolatry have emerged as the most aggressive threats to antiquities and historical sites.
The Taliban gained particular infamy in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. The group destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas with dynamite in March 2001 on the orders of leader Mullah Omar. The statues had survived since the fourth century, and both Afghan and Western archaeologists had worked in the surrounding areas for years trying to document Afghanistan’s history.
The Taliban also banned most forms of art and recreation— including traditional Afghan music, dancing, sports and flying kites. After the Taliban was overthrown, Afghan leaders in Bamiyan pledged they would find a way to rebuild the Buddhas and redouble efforts to preserve their culture.
Cultural destruction and looting was a problem during and after the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. But most of it was either accidental destruction by coalition forces or looting by petty thieves and criminal networks seeking to sell artifacts on the black market, rather than an ideological campaign.
Not so in Mali.
Timbuktu is one of the world’s best preserved ancient cities and was known for its thriving art and music scenes. It was once a popular vacation spot and has, unsurprisingly, struggled to attract visitors after Al Qaeda-linked militants invaded in 2012. When the Islamists took over, they ruthlessly clamped down on creative expression and destroyed dozens of sites and artifacts.
Ironically, the city is famous for its role in history as a thriving marketplace and a center of Islamic scholarship. Many of the ancient artifacts and sites the Islamists destroyed had been specifically preserved and studied by early Muslim scholars and maintained by the city’s predominantly Muslim residents.
Even in January 2013 as French and Malian troops defeated the Islamist fighters, the fleeing militants set fire to a library in Timbuktu that held ancient manuscripts dating well back to the 1200s, including ones written in Hebrew. Locals have tried to rebuild, with assistance from stone masons using traditional methods to reconstruct mausoleums.
But it’s the Islamic State that’s become most synonymous with the destruction of culture. In both Syria and Iraq, the terror group has destroyed ancient sites and artifacts with almost industrial efficiency.
The Islamic State has aggressively destroyed sites associated with Assyrian history as well as Yazidi shrines in Sinjar. But the militants have had no qualms about razing mosques and destroying the works of ancient Muslim and Arab scholars, either.
“If they can erase all evidence of interpretations of Islam other than their own, they can create a world where their interpretation of Islam is the only one that anyone can know about,” historian Christopher Jones explained.
The fighters have destroyed churches, mosques and temples with explosives and bulldozers. They’ve ransacked and destroyed universities and museums, videotaping themselves smashing artifacts with hammers.
Attacks on culture are deliberate acts meant to erase aspects of human history. Militant groups do so in an effort to eliminate narratives that challenge their own, while depriving their enemies of their culture, history and identity.
But while tragic — and now criminal — it’s just one terrible aspect of modern warfare.
The world is currently experiencing its worst refugee crisis since World War II, possibly the worst in human history, as migrants are driven from their homes by a plethora of bloody conflicts and autocratic regimes. Preserving our history matters — but so does dealing with the challenges in the here and now.