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Slaying Saints and Torching Texts

[In this Oct. 19, 2012 photo, men pray beside the tombs of locally venerated Islamic saints, whose mausoleums were destroyed by Islamist group Ansar Dine, in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo)] [In this Oct. 19, 2012 photo, men pray beside the tombs of locally venerated Islamic saints, whose mausoleums were destroyed by Islamist group Ansar Dine, in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo)]

When I first journeyed to Bamako to research Sufism in Mali in 2006, my American students generally asked two questions: Where is Mali and what is Sufism? Today, the answer to both of these questions is found daily in the headline news.

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, the destruction of Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts not 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.

Though extremist groups have been present in northern Mali for over a decade, it was not until after soldiers led by Amadou Haya Sanogo toppled President Amadou Toumani Touré and armed groups connected to Ansar Deine (Defenders of the Faith) took control of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal that Islamists began destroying the centuries-old mausoleums of Sufi “saints” with weapons which found their way into Mali from the recent military intervention in Libya. Thus, the recent destruction of Sufi heritage did not take place in a vacuum; rather, the current desecration is intimately connected to the conflict in Libya that toppled the Gaddafi regime, and the complex and shifting landscape of political alliances among diverse actors—some under the influence of the Gulf states—following in the wake of the toppling of the Malian central government in 2012, and struggles of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad for independence. Similarly, several years before the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, they issued a fatwa to promote their preservation. It was not until early 2001 when the Taliban were squeezed by crippling sanctions for harboring Osama bin Laden, in conjunction with a devastating drought and the increasing ideological influence of outside actors from the Gulf, that they reversed course on world heritage, and took the Buddhas hostage. Likewise, Islamists in northern Mali did not destroy Sufi shrines and bodies until a combustible constellation of political and military events and religious ideologies competing in Libya and Mali forced them onto the world political stage.

According to UNESCO, a large number of shrines in Timbuktu, “the city of 333 saints,” have been destroyed, including at least seven Sufi shrines on a World Heritage Site. Some of the shrines and tombs allegedly destroyed include those of Sidi Mahmoud ben Amar (d 955 C.E.), Sidi Moctar, Alpha Moya, Sidi Elmety, Mahamane Elmety, and Cheick Sidi Amar. Armed groups also broke down the door of Timbuktu’s legendary fifteenth century Sidi Yahya mosque. Other shrines that were attacked include two Sufi tombs at the fourteenth century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu, made entirely of mud, fibre, straw, and wood, and the shrine of Alfa Mobo in Goundam. These attacks have been condemned by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court. Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor at the ICC, has argued these attacks constitute war crimes under Article 8 of the Rome Statute.

On January 29, it was widely reported in the western media that Islamist extremists fleeing Timbuktu as French and Malian forces closed in on the desert city torched the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state of the art archival, conservation and research facility containing hundreds of thousands of historic medieval manuscripts written in Arabic, Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara on subjects as diverse as math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, history, botany, and geography. The sensationalized media coverage immediately claimed that thousands had been destroyed, even though only a limited number of items were damaged or stolen, and there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.

Before these reports surfaced, Samuel Sidibe, the director of Mali’s National Museum, asked Ansar Deine to allow the Red Cross to evacuate the manuscripts. Just as artifacts like the Buddhas of Bamiyan or Sufi shrines and the “remains” of mystics have been framed as “bodies” being “sacrificed” for a purified Islam by Islamists, and as “bodies” in need of rescue by the international media and cultural heritage experts, this appeal to the Red Cross to “evacuate” manuscripts suggests that texts too have become equated with the same “value” and vulnerability as living bodies, being just as susceptible to the terror of Islamists. Not surprisingly, Ansar Deine rejected these appeals, much as the Taliban rejected appeals to save the Bamiyan Buddhas by arguing that all they were destroying were “stones,” in contrast to the human “lives” being lost through famine and drought. Nevertheless, the fact that the media missreported—whether intentionally or unintentionally--the torching of texts reveals a hysteria about the susceptibility of the written word itself to terror. If artifacts like the Buddhas and structures like the shrines can be terrorized like bodies, why not texts?

Similar to the strategic logic of suicide bombers, the destruction of cultural heritage by Islamists is a strategy usually employed by weak actors who seek to use cultural terrorism and the media to compel the withdrawal of a real or perceived occupation of a national homeland. This is currently the case in northern Mali where the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is fighting for independence from Mali. Like suicide terrorism, the destruction of Sufi tombs, which contain the bodies of medieval mystics, is framed by Islamists as a symbolic “sacrifice” or “martyrdom” that is perceived as necessary to achieve national liberation and prove a political and religious affiliation with international counterparts. In this literal and symbolic destruction, the “dead” mystic body becomes a martyr for the cause of a political ideology which is ostensibly opposed to both materiality and the intercessory powers of the dead. Nevertheless, in their destruction of these tombs and “bodies” as idols—and their redundant murdering of the “already” dead—Ansar Deine has betrayed their own message, for they have themselves traded in politics and religion with images, illustrating the impossibility of transcending the process of objectification—even in the radical attempt to eradicate icons in their fetishization of immateriality.

The link between suicide terrorism and cultural terrorism by Islamic extremists is not restricted to the Sufi context; for instance, the Taliban compared their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas to the “sacrifice” and icon smashing acts of the Prophet Abraham; further, they aligned the timing of their destruction with ‘Eid al-Adha, and followed the dynamiting of the Buddhas with a “sacrifice” of 100 cows during a horrible famine—these symbolic and literal acts of “sacrifice” were completely ignored by the western media. As al-Qaeda and its affiliates are less a transnational network of like-minded ideologues than a cross-national militant alliance of movements working in tandem against what they perceive as a common imperial threat, the symbolic and “sacrificial” destruction of cultural heritage—and in particular the destruction of Sufi shrines and bodies—serves as an act of both national resistance and transnational solidarity with Islamists, simultaneously demarcating religious difference and repudiating foreign intervention.

Cultural heritage is almost always a casualty of war. Yet it is only when such destruction is framed under the banner of Islam—especially as a prelude to foreign military intervention—that it garners widespread international attention and outrage. For instance, if cultural heritage is damaged by drones or in the digging of military trenches, it is framed as collateral damage, but if it is framed as a target or victim of religious ideology, its damage is lamented in the nightly news, and it becomes a rallying cause for global consternation. Recognizing that war is the greatest threat of all to cultural heritage, UNESCO, in anticipation of military operations in Mali, provided the topographic features relative to the location of World Heritage sites to the General Staffs, and disseminated individual brochures and information for soldiers, in addition to the police and aid workers, to prevent further damage to Mali’s cultural heritage. Norway, Croatia and Mauritius were particularly instrumental in training armed forces in the prevention of illicit trafficking by locals, outside groups, and the armed forces themselves in Mali. 

Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova launched an appeal: “I ask all armed forces to make every effort to protect the cultural heritage of the country, which has already been severely damaged.” In her letter to Malian and French authorities, she urged them to respect the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict and its two Protocols—in particular Article 4, which prohibits “exposing (cultural) property to destruction or damage” and calls for “refraining from any act of hostility, directed against such property.” In addition to these appeals, Bokova has mobilized UNESCO’s Emergency Fund for future operations related to the assessment, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of destroyed relics.

In a war that threatens the whole region, the destruction of Sufi shrines is confirming the status of groups like Ansar Deine in Mali in the eyes of their supporters as pious champions of Islam—against both Islamic innovation and international foes intent on meddling in the region. Nevertheless, the destruction of the shrines in Mali is not being framed by UNESCO or other international bodies as part of a larger regional trend of Sufi shrine destruction, but rather as an isolated justification for military intervention. However, the destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali followed on the heels of the destruction of Sufi “spaces” and “bodies” in Libya, such as the Sidi Abdussalam Mosque, the shrine of Sidi Al Makari, the shrine of al-Shaab al-Dahmani, the shrine of Abdel Salam al-Asmar, Zawiyat Blat in Zlitan, the shrine of Abdullah al-Shaab, and the Ottoman Qaramanli graves of the family of Yusuf Pasha Qarmali. The destruction of the shrine of Abdel Salam al-Asmar was celebrated on a Facebook page called “Together for the Removal of the Abdel Salam al-Asmar Shrine,” which praised supporters of the “successful removal of the Asmar shrine, the largest sign of idolatry in Libya.”

The Union of Sufi Brotherhoods in Tunisia has reported that thirty-four shrines have been attacked since Tunisians forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile. The issue was set on the national agenda earlier this month when the legendary 13th century mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said was set on fire, destroying not just the interior of the tomb but several manuscripts as well. Further, since January 2011, at least twenty-five Sufi shrines in Egypt have been attacked.  Numerous Egyptian governorates, such as al-Minufyia and Aswan, have reported acts of violence to the government’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments and public prosecutors, and asked for state protection for Sufi structures. The question remains—why has the international community not rushed to the aid of these desecrated shrines throughout North Africa as they have in Mali?

Just as suicide bombings have a contagion effect, so too does the destruction of Sufi shrines and the religious and political ideology behind it. Beyond North Africa, recent attacks on Mali’s Sufi heritage fit well into wider international patterns of attacks on Sufi heritage and Sufi worshippers, which comes as little surprise, since Mali’s northern region has increasingly become more “international” with a number of leading extremist forces gathering in the region to lend their support. Recent attacks on Sufi “space” stretch all the way to Kashmir and Pakistan, where over fifty shrines have been attacked, such as those of Rahman Baba, Shaykh Nisa Baba, Shaykh Bahadur Baba, Sakhi Sarwar, and Ali ibn Usman al-Hujwiri.

While the internationalization of these attacks may suggest conformity of message or intent, these attacks often come coded, like suicide bombings, with different motivations beyond a militant and fundamentalist religious ideology. For instance, an attack on the Sakhi Sarwar shrine in Punjab, which killed forty-one people, was explicitly framed as an act of revenge by Ehsanullah Ehsan, the Taliban’s spokesman, for a government offensive against militants in Pakistan’s northwest province. Further, a video posted online showed members of Ansar al Sharia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s political front, demolishing tombs in Yemen, such as the al Ja’dani shrine in al Tareyyah, in the villages of Al Tareyyah, Al Darjaj, and Sayhan near Jaar in Abayan province. In the video, Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, a former detainee at Guantanamo and now a senior AQAP official, states, “So, just as [the mujahideen] fought democracy and representative councils which make laws alongside Allah, they are destroying the domes which are being worshipped other than Allah, along with the graves and mausoleums, which people try to get close to other than Allah the Great and Almighty.” Here, the fight and rhetoric against democracy and Sufism are seen as one and the same—another common symptom found in the strategic or perverted logic that links suicide bombing and the destruction of Sufi shrines.

In destroying the Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Ansar Deine declared, “There is no world heritage. It does not exist.” Urging the infidels to not get involved in their business, Ansar Deine’s bold proclamation that world heritage does not exist may be read as a radical critique of “outside” claims to Mali’s heritage—claims which have served throughout history by imperial powers as convenient pretexts for intervention. Similarly, one of the Taliban’s main motivations for the destructions of the Bamiyan Buddhas was the international community’s offer of millions of dollars to save antiquities, when millions of Afghans were suffering from starvation under sanctions. Mullah Omar, in highlighting the dehumanizing hypocrisy of offering money for stones but not food, blew up the Buddhas, in part, as a symbolic act to make the world take notice of the devastating famine, drought and sanctions. Yet the English-language press, in contrast to the Urdu press, focused exclusively on the “barbarism,” “savagery,” and “primitivism” of his intolerant religious ideology, instead of the stated humanitarian message he claimed informed his intentions beyond just Islamic law or iconoclasm. In this most recent iconoclash, one must wonder if there are indeed other intended political or economic “messages” attached to the destruction of these Sufi shrines in Mali which are not being voiced or translated other than the repudiation of materiality and the promotion of a particular and intolerant interpretation of Islam. 

As in Afghanistan, the military intervention into Mali was linked very closely in rhetoric to the necessity of preserving Mali’s cultural heritage against extremists. Irina Bokova noted: “The destruction of World Heritage sites in Mali in 2012, especially the mausoleums in Timbuktu, sparked a wave of indignation across the world, helping to raise awareness of the critical situation facing the Malian people. The current military intervention must protect people and secure the cultural heritage of Mali.”

Yet as Sufi shrines are being destroyed across the Muslim world, the question arises: What makes the Mali case unique and deserving of all this media attention? Is it the scale of the attacks on cultural heritage in Timbuktu, or is the destruction of cultural property during a time of armed conflict a convenient rallying cry for a military incursion, as it was in Afghanistan? And will this pretext—the destruction of cultural property and specifically Sufi shrines—be used for further military action in the region? Think tanks like the RAND Corporation, the Nixon Center, and Carnegie have been urging US policymakers for years to support Sufism as an antidote to “extremist” Islam through the construction of Sufi places of learning, the publication of Sufi materials, and the renovation of Sufi shrines. It seems that instead of promoting the Sufi ideals of love and tolerance, the perceived alignment of US policy interests with Sufism has backfired and placed Sufis in the line of fire, forcing many of them to fear for their own personal safety and retreat from these common and often historic places of worship.

Materiality is often relative to power and specific regimes. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Ansar Deine, in their attempt to grab power and attention in the political arena and the worldwide media, took actions to deny the material efficacy of the Sufi saints and their tombs, to which many Malians have turned for blessings, inspiration, and healing for centuries. While the destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali can be easily viewed as an uncompromising or anachronistic interpretation of Islam, these acts also project symbolic solidarity with international Islamic groups and movements, many of whom are also being credited with inspiring and executing these unfortunate attacks.    

The denial of the intercessory power of the souls of Sufi “saints” or of the healing powers of the Sufi shrine are, in effect, a rejection of materiality, not unlike the Taliban’s rejection of the Buddhas as nothing more than “stones.” Such a drastically different reading of material culture—one that strips the material of meaning, value, and historicity—arouses a strong sense of threat to so-called “universal” conventions about what has value and is worth preserving. The tendency in the media and by cultural preservationists to frame competing notions of materiality and the value and capacity of heritage, not as different, but as wrong, results in analyses that overemphasize the moral dimension in an attempt to protect and maintain the appropriate hierarchy of representation and the relationship between the material and immaterial which is falsely assumed to be stable and universal. Thus, what is at stake here is not necessarily heritage preservation, but self-preservation—when these objects are destroyed, it is not culture which is destroyed, but our very notion of ourselves, and what it means to be “material” and have value. Thus, the desecration of the saint’s body is the desecration of our own body—which is why the outcry against such destruction creates such an emotional response that borders on the hysteric.

As the number of conflicts involving non-state actors and “cultural terrorism” or “culturcide” is growing, international treaties like the Hague Convention which binds only state actors will fail to protect cultural heritage.  The attacks on Sufi heritage, sadly, will only continue to intensify, for what is at stake is not just a battle of religious ideologies, but a battle over meaning—over materiality, its value, and its potency as a literal and symbolic weapon. For Islamists, the Sufi shrine, Sufi body, and Islamic “text” serve as convenient weapons which with to attack tolerance, democracy, occupation, imperialism, and materiality. Instead of dismissing these atrocious attacks on cultural heritage as “barbaric” or framing the destruction of material culture as merely as an extremist interpretation of Islamic law or belief “gone wrong,” it is essential that we engage in a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between materiality, politics, terrorism, and the body to understand the internationalization of these debates in places as diverse as Mali, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Pakistan. 

As someone who has researched countless Sufi shrines from Mali to Afghanistan, it is heartbreaking to watch these legendary shrines, erected to commemorate exemplars of love and tolerance, callously destroyed in the name of religion and politics. It is my sincere hope that the rich ideals of syncretism, tolerance, peace, and love—embedded in the Sufi beliefs and practices of Mali and impervious to extinction no matter how many shrines are demolished—will ultimately triumph over all forms of ignorance and destruction currently ravaging the beautiful country of Mali, where my home in Bamako sits empty, waiting for me to return.

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