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Malian Extremists Continue Demolition Of Heritage Sites

Tasbeeh Herwees |
September 19, 2012 | 12:24 a.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

Last Monday, members of the militant Al-Qaeda faction Ansar Al-Din destroyed the tomb of a Muslim saint located in northern Mali, where rebel groups had seized control last March. 

The tomb of Cheikh Al-Kebir, revered by members of the Kunta tribe, was smashed with hammers and pickaxes, a witness told the Globe and Mail. Ansar Al-Din -- which means "Defenders of the Faith" in Arabic -- declared the mausoleum "haram," or forbidden, because they violate traditional Islam's ban on idolatry. 

This is only the latest in a long list of shrines, mausoleums and holy sites destroyed by the extremist group since July. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization had placed the Malian city of Timbuktu on a list of World Heritage sites in danger only a few days before the Islamists destroyed the shrine of Sidi Mahmoud, and then continued, throughout the months, to destroy the other 15 Sufi shrines located in northern Mali. 

The group has been at odds with Tuareg rebels of the secular political party National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad . Though at one point they shared control of Northern Mali, Ansar Al Dine wrangled away control, hoping to implement their puritanical brand of Islam in the region. 

Lynn Dodd Swartz, curator of the University of Southern California's Archaeology Research Center, says the wrecking of archaeological sites is always expected after political turmoil like the kind Mali has seen in the past few months. 

"Political infidelity is the crucible for this kind of heritage destruction," Swartz said, "You try to erase the past of one group in order to put yours, your new future, your new vision for the present, in place. 

But they also have other motives. The shrines, valued by Sufi sects of Islam, are often the sites of prayer, worship and sacrifice. More orthodox interpretations of Islam perceive such sites as a form of idol worship. Ansar Al Din, eager to enforce the more extreme interpretations of the script, are destroying the shrines in an effort gain political and social control of the region. 

The key word, said Swartz, is "commodity." Demolishing the sites has earned them worldwide media attention where they had none before, and that, says Swartz, "all translates into the kind of currency for groups who are able to bargain that kind of political power and mobilize that media attention". 

"It also makes them attractive to funding forces outside of Mali who might be looking for a group that is especially persuasive, especially expressive, that can mobilize world attention, then they're able to get a source for their program," she said. 

Though UNESCO has admonished the extremists, calling for protection of the sites, Ansar Al-Din has defied their warnings. A spokesperson for the group, Sanda Ould Boumama, gave a statement last Saturday scorning UNESCO for their interference. 

"God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” Boumama said.

To members of Ansar Al Dine, the attention of UNESCO and other heritage organizations represent the interference of the West in Malian, and Islamic, matters. 

"Because the people outside [of Mali] care for them… they're a means of expressing discontent with a whole range of realities, whether that be specifically American or Western or any kind of Islamic liberalism or collaboration with the West," said Swartz.

She likens the situation to the destruction of Buddhist relics in Afghanistan by the Taliban back in 2001.

"In both of these cases, you have Western interests focused on ancient aspects of the society and cultural heritage of these two places," she said, "In the case of the Taliban, they were seeking food, support, aid for their people in Afghanistan and they were offered help for the cultural heritage treasures. That, along with some of their beliefs, coalesced in a very anti-heritage perspective which ultimately lead to the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas."

Reach Senior Staff Reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.



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