Rage Against the Monuments
The deliberate destruction of monuments is an act as age-old as man’s ability to build those very monuments. The past decade and a half has seen an extraordinary escalation in the desecration of great architectural works – from the Taliban’s demolition of 2000-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan to planes thrust into the World Trade Center to the devastation of libraries and museums in Iraq and Egypt. Recently, rebels in Mali used axes, shovels and other weapons to destroy cultural and religious monuments, bashing in the door of a 15th century mosque in Timbuktu. Out of the seven tombs of Muslim saints that were destroyed, the most defiant act entailed bashing in the door of Sidi Yahya mosque; this door has been closed for centuries in sacred belief that opening it will bring immense misfortune. However, often left out of the discussion is the fact that the demolition of the monuments in Timbuktu and elsewhere are not always results of the urgent fury of mobs but symbolize an intense and prolonged frustration with existing class, religious, cultural and societal structures.
In Mali, the destruction of the tombs and cultural artifacts seems to be motivated by a host of factors. After independence from France in 1960, Mali suffered twenty-three years of military dictatorship, as well as several droughts and rebellions. Since becoming a democracy in 1992, there has been some growth, but a fairly chronic trade deficit has made it impossible for Mali to experience anything like thriving development. People have grown weary of poverty and corruption.
No viable solutions have been explored regarding the Tuareg’s demand for land and cultural autonomy, an issue that has been in the background of Malian politics since the nineties. “Tuareg revolts in Mali and Niger are nothing new,” writes journalist Tim Lister. “Long marginalized, the pastoral and nomadic Tuareg have frequently taken up arms, sometimes with Gadhafi’s backing.” Lister has argued elsewhere that Gadhafi’s romantic self-vision as a Bedouin bolstered his manipulative attempts to destabilize neighboring desert landscapes of Mali. The Tuareg were mainly seen as capable mercenaries by the former Libyan leader. For the Tuareg, this was a convenient way of earning money and also strengthened weapons capacity for their rebellions.
Gadhafi’s death and an influx of arms into the region have fostered confusion within Mali’s organizational dynamics and precipitated the birth of Ansar El Dine, the extremist Salafist group linked to Al-Qaeda and in the headlines today. A small part of the Tuareg population sees no alternative to joining this organization, which sustains itself not only on brute force, but also gives handouts upon recruitment. In a Capitol Hill hearing held this June, Rudolph Atallah explained, “…the grievances that comprise the latest backbone of Tuareg insurgency push some into Tuareg Islamist factions, which share the same grievances and hatred for regional governments, especially those in Niger and Mali, but tap into a deeper Islamic frame to promote activism.” (1)
The events in Mali are a deliberate attempt at memoricide, an organized effort to erase history and with it the collective cultural memory of a group of people. It is also a deliberate attempt to rewrite the existing narrative and above all, it is a cry for belonging. It is the desire to be received within a mainstream institutional framework. Sadly, this need is being manipulated by the obscure ideological motivations of al-Qaeda’s local strains. It is easy to focus on al-Qaeda as the current evil infecting Mali, but any analysis would be incomplete for failing to acknowledge and historicize the anger and tensions that precipitate the conditions al-Qaeda likes so well to exploit, whether in Mali, Yemen, Somalia or other lands in flux. Understanding the deeper-seated contexts must be a first step towards any progressive solution.
(1) Tuareg Situation in Mali, Statement of Mr. Rudolph Atallah Senior Fellow, Michael S. Ansari Africa Center Atlantic Council Committee; Congressional Quarterly Congressional Testimony, June 29, 2012 Friday; Committee: House Foreign Affairs HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS; Subcommittee: Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights SECTION: CAPITOL HILL HEARING TESTIMONY
Bhakti Shringarpure is the editor of Warscapes magazine.