Bhakti Shringarpure

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.

There has been widespread outrage and condemnation of the destruction as profane, even going so far as to call the acts “war crimes.” There has been a lot of focus on the destruction of the cultural, religious and spiritual fabric of a country considered a model for democracy in the region. In general, the discussion has centered around Islam and it’s endless misappropriations by al-Qaeda. On one hand, analysts, intellectuals and historians depict the rebels as having planned a purposeful sabotaging of history and heritage, and on the other hand, the rebels are characterized as religious fanatics and ignorant “hooligans” who misunderstand Islam and have no idea how gravely important these tombs and manuscripts are. 

Even in their contradictions, none of these analyses or discussions is wrong, per se, but the base anger from which these actions emerge is almost never addressed. French philosopher George Bataille wrote of the intrinsic violence and fear radiated by monuments that loom above and around us. He writes: “Great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes.” For Bataille, the storming of Bastille reflected the animosity people felt toward the monuments that had become their masters. A lot of Bataille’s work has been controversial because it unravels codes and structures in society that we inherit without questioning. His writing on architecture falls within this category and is an attempt to show that monuments can be symbols of social structure and they solidify existing order. In an early essay on the monument, ‘Notre-Dame de Rheims’ he claimed that the physical fabric of the church was an embodiment of Christian values and when in presence of such a work, it enforced a certain social behavior. He writes, “…the human order is bound up from the start with the architectural order.” Bataille gives voice to an existing intuition amongst all mankind, one that has led governing classes to often create structures of apartheid, physical walls that have risen up as wedges enabling a tragic web of inclusion-exclusion politics. He pushes further, “Such that if you attach architecture, whose monumental productions are now the true masters all across the land, gathering the servile multitudes in their shadow, enforcing admiration and astonishment, order and constraint, you are in some ways attacking man.” Thinking about architecture through this lens dramatically alters the easy presumption that monuments are not just the souls of societies or metaphors of progress but that they also have the ability to command, prohibit, exclude and dominate.
The violent desecration of monuments also has a symbolic place in histories of the postcolonial world. Martinican psychiatrist and anti-colonial thinker, Frantz Fanon has written about the fundamentally compartmentalized world of the colony, with cramped shantytowns on one side of town and the clean, gleaming world of the wealthy colonizer on the other. Fanon claims that the dreams of the colonized underclass are often centered on how to take over spaces out of which they have been left out. They wish to “swarm the forbidden cities” and want nothing more than “demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.”
Even with the end of colonialism, the cycle of violence continues on many fronts, including upon the nature of space itself. A similar anger is directed toward the privileged group of leaders and intellectuals who inevitably begin occupying the villas, offices, monuments, public institutions, administrative buildings, clubs, bars and gymnasiums formerly inhabited by the colonizers. Soon enough, the failures of the postcolonial state find expression in angry and discontent mobs thirsty for destruction. In 1966, Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in an armed coup in Ghana. Demonstrators marched through the streets of Accra carrying banners against the former President. Eventually, they found their way to the monumental statue of Nkrumah, which they toppled and beheaded. In a different example, in Lebanon, the Martyr’s Square area and the National Museum, both nationally important sites, were completely destroyed during the fifteen-year civil war. There is an immediate, urgent and unmitigated political reality expressed by works of architecture, and these structures are instinctively obliterated first in situations in which longstanding discontment gives way to collective rage.
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-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.