Heritage caught in the crossfire in wake of Arab Spring

From Macedonia to Mali, the culture of the Islamic world is in an ideological and territorial struggle

Attacks on Timbuktu in 2012 resulted in the destruction of ten religious and historic monuments in the Unesco World Heritage city

Attacks on Timbuktu in 2012 resulted in the destruction of ten religious and historic monuments in the Unesco World Heritage city

With the Amenas gas-plant hostage crisis in Algeria in January and French troops in action in Mali, the West has swivelled its gaze to the Sahel, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara. The power struggle across post-Arab Spring North Africa and the Middle East is widening.

It is an ideological as much as a territorial struggle that uses monuments for target practice. Before Mali’s Islamist rebels retreated into the mountains ahead of advancing French forces, much damage was done to the World Heritage-listed Sufi shrines and mosques of Timbuktu. In 2012 they were levelled with low-tech pickaxes and brute force by the theological stormtroopers of Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It is part of a purge under way from Bangladesh to Egypt and from Libya to Nigeria. It has accelerated since the Arab Spring as the Gulf’s oil-backed Wahhabist/Salafist groups and related hardliners flex their doctrinal muscles across the Arab world, not least within Wahhabist Saudi Arabia.

The targets may be non-Islamic heritage sites, such as the Buddhist temples in Bangladesh attacked late last year, but more commonly it is directed at those branches of Islam that are more relaxed about the use of imagery or prize more highly a genius loci, such as the Shias or the Sufis, for whom saintly shrines are an important touchstone of their faith. Just one example: in Tunisia, the popular Sufi mausoleum at Sidi Bou Said was destroyed by fire in January this year. The Tunisian government blamed the Salafists, a Jihadi sect of Sunni Muslims with a strictly literalist and puritanical approach to Islam. It has been followed by further attacks on historic shrines to Muslim saints in the Maghreb and the Middle East.

Comment in the West revolves around “mad” mullahs, Islam’s “primitivism” or its “Medieval” approach to art and culture. It is often assumed that Islam has a uniform outlook and an integral, violent antipathy to anything that could remotely be interpreted as shirk–the sin of idolatry. It is a lack of comprehension that allows media hoaxes such as an Islamic cleric’s call to demolish Egypt’s pyramids to be reported as fact in the Western media, when the “call” actually came from a parody Twitter account. It also forgets the diverse artistic legacy of the Persians, the Mughals and the Ottomans. Islam is as wide a faith as Christianity with its Vatican and Amish, its Baroque panoply and Puritan asceticism. Many Muslims are horrified at what is happening to their built heritage.

While, according to tradition, Mohammed cleansed the Kabbah, the stone structure at the heart of Mecca and the Islamic universe, of its pagan idols when he entered the city (in line with Old Testament precursors), there is actually nothing in the Koran that promotes such ruthless iconoclasm.

Irfan Al-Alawi, the executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, puts it simply: “Islam is not a nihilistic religion; traditional Islam values the achievements of the pre-Islamic past, although that past may be subject to theological challenge.

“There is no reference in the Koran that has anything to do with images or representation except for the Islamic condemnation of idol worship. Prohibitions on figurative representation are limited to Sunni interpretations derived from a small number of hadith [sayings ascribed to the Prophet] that are subject to debate. Among extreme Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and some other fundamentalists,” he continues, “the interdiction extends to photographs of people or animals.” But he stresses that Islamic opinion is not, and has never been, settled on the issues.

Wahhabism has its roots in the late 18th-century Bedouin tribes of the Arabian desert. They revived the earlier, purist school of Ibn Taymiyyah, and in the 19th century, the Wahhabi movement fought against “innovation” in Islam and, more pragmatically, against Ottoman rule in the region which came to an end with the First World War and the rise of the House of Saud. It was its interpretation of key texts, such as those that forbid graves to be covered by structures or to be taller than a hand’s span (again based on disputed hadith rather than the Koran), that led Wahhabi forces of the time to destroy tombs and mosques that contained tombs. Revived Wahhabism-Salafism is doing the same.

The shrine destroyers view the Sufi practice of praying at the tombs of saints to be idolatrous: even more so is the practice of sleeping in tombs to encourage visions. During the first wave of destruction in Timbuktu, locals are reported to have defended the historic mud-built shrines against attack, but in July 2012, Islamists successfully destroyed the mausoleum of Cheikh el-Kebir and the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya, as well as four more sites. By the beginning of this year, 11 out of 16 mausoleums within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site had been demolished. “When the Prophet entered Mecca he said that all the mausoleums should be destroyed–and that is what we are doing,” declared Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana.

According to Kevin MacDonald, a professor of African archaeology at University College London, the fact that Timbuktu locals wanted to protect their shrines was, to the invading Islamists, proof of superstitious idolatry.

He also points out that arguments over the issue periodically erupt within Islam as it has done within the Christian world: the 8th-century Byzantine Quarrel of the Images, for example, that concerned the degree of devotion due to icons, or the chipping away of statues in Cromwellian England in the name of an image-free Puritan austerity.

Praying through vs praying to

Even within Sufism, differences arise. In 19th-century Mali, at least one mosque was left to rot for being too ostentatious. “That’s the general scholarly opinion as to why the 13th-century Mansa Musa mosque in Djenné was allowed to decay,” notes MacDonald. “It is said that [poet and monk] Cheikou Amadou Bamba removed the roof timbers in 1830.” MacDonald also warns that the late 15th-century Tomb of Askia in Gao in northern Mali remains in danger if it can be demonstrated that the 17m-high, mud-built tomb contains a body instead of simply being a commemorative cenotaph. The issue is avoided in the text of its World Heritage listing, “but if it were truly a tomb”, says MacDonald, “the result would be unequivocal in Salafist eyes.” While Gao was under Islamist occupation, the tomb did not receive the annual maintenance these mud-brick monuments need.

Al-Alawi explains the differences between worshipping idols and intercession as it is understood in mainstream Islam: “Blessings and supplications addressed to the deceased saintly person are not ‘worship’ of the dead but prayers for intercession by the souls of the dead, that is prayers ‘through’ the individual, not ‘to’ the individual.” He argues that the destruction is intended as a “powerful message to the rest of the Islamic ummah” from the hardliners. “Wahhabism is ‘modern’ in its own way, a reduced Islam for the consumption of Muslims too busy, too superficially educated or unsophisticated to care about Islamic civilisation,” he says.

That hasn’t stopped the Wahhabi/Salafist attitude toward Sufi devotions and the preservation of Islamic heritage gaining significant influence in crisis zones, such as the Maghreb, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia, and in the Balkans. Saudi money funding mosque “restoration” in Bosnia, has, for example, seen historic Ottoman mosques have their decorative interiors whitewashed over.

The Kabbah in Mecca is immune from such interpretations: it is honoured as the object that Muslims pray towards rather than pray to. It remains while much of the historic city around it is levelled because of economic/tourist development—including the house of one of Mohammed’s wives, which was cleared away to make room for public lavatories.

Conservationists even fear for the future of Mohammed’s tomb itself. It lies beneath the green dome of the Masjid an-Nabawi mosque in Medina, a complex set to be radically altered and expanded by the Saudi government.

To some observers, however, Wahhabist iconoclasm is just as importantly a statement of political power. It is about sending messages beyond the Muslim world and rejecting alien or colonialist values. The Taliban’s snubbing of international entreaties to preserve the Bamiyan Buddhas is a case in point. The episode is set out in detail in the art historian Finbarr Barry Flood’s seminal paper Between Cult and Culture (2002). It discusses radical Islam’s suspicion of the European Enlightenment and describes, from a Taliban point of view, the potential for veneration of images that occurs in supposedly secular museums. In Nigeria, the semi-criminal, semi-jihadist Boko Haram has targeted churches; its very name means “Western education is sinful”.

MacDonald and others also note that the July 2012 timing of the second slew of shrine demolitions in Timbuktu coincided closely with Unesco’s World Heritage Committee decision to place Mali’s occupied World Heritage sites on its list of sites in danger. A spokesman for Ansar Dine told the press: “There is no world heritage. It does not exist. Infidels must not get involved in our business.” There is no proof, however, that the destruction in Timbuktu was a carefully timed rebuke to Unesco and the West.

An international security issue

Unesco’s director-general, Irina Bokova, told the New York Times that “they target culture because it strikes to the heart and because it has powerful media value in an increasingly connected world”. Bokova argues that it is time that cultural heritage is “seen as an international security issue” as well as a war crime.

More worryingly still, such iconoclastic actions are often an accompaniment or precursor to sectarian attacks on other faith groups, as has been seen with deadly bomb blasts in Pakistan directed at Sufi shrines and, according to Human Rights Watch, against a Shia place of worship and two churches in Syria. The backdrop of the destruction at Bamiyan, too, was a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the local Hazara people for whom the colossi were a symbol of local identity.

Such destruction should be seen as a warning. The heritage architect Dennis Rodwell, who has acted as consultant to Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, says: “Culture is the first, second and third and ongoing target in this civil war. If the Christian community–as just one example—survives in Syria it will be a miracle.”

The supposed plan to level the pyramids at Giza may have demonstrated media gullibility, but if even the Prophet Mohammed’s own tomb is at risk, and with Coptic churches along the Nile under attack, is it too outlandish to fear that the tombs of the pharaohs would be any safer than Bamiyan’s Buddhas if Egypt fell into Salafist hands? Their place on a target list remains highly improbable but it can no longer be said to be unthinkable.

Attacks attributed to Islamic iconoclasts in the post-Bamiyan period


• In 2002, armed members of the fundamentalist Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM) began a campaign to take over the Arabati Baba Tekke in Tetovo. This Ottoman-era monastery was founded by the Bektashi order of Dervishes and is the largest of its kind in the Balkans. The ICM’s aim is to turn the complex into a mosque. A Sufi burial at the monastery was obstructed in 2009, and it is reported that despoliation of its buildings by its ICM occupiers continues.


• Around 100 people were killed or injured in an attack in May 2005 on the silver-mirrored shrine of Saint Imam Bari, near Islamabad. The shrine was built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

• Taliban extremists have been blamed for a series of deadly attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan that continue to this day. These include the shrine of Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba in Peshawar, which was subject to a rocket attack in December 2007. Militants belonging to Lashkar-e-Islam hit the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba in 2008, and the shrine to the Pashto poet Rahman Baba was targeted and badly damaged a year later. Hundreds have been killed or injured in these attacks. In 2010, the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the ”patron saint of Karachi”, was also bombed.


• Many non-Sunni mosques and monuments in Iraq have been destroyed since the US-led invasion. In February 2006, for example, the golden dome of the Shia al-Askari Mosque in Samarra was destroyed by explosives in a strike attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The bombers returned in 2007 to destroy the mosque’s twin minarets.


• A bomb attack on a police station in Bosnia in 2010 was linked to Wahhabi extremist who opposed the annual pilgrimage to the Bosniak mystical mountain site at Ajvatovica. The incident raised fears of rising Islamic extremism in Bosnia.


• In 2011, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, 16 historic mosques in Alexandria belonging to Sufi orders were earmarked for destruction by Salafists. Sufi shrines and Coptic churches across Egypt have been targeted at an increasing rate since the revolution in 2011. In the al-Qalyubiya governorate of Egypt, two Salafists were arrested after five local shrines were destroyed. Locals fought to protect the tombs.


• In 2012, the Libyan congress called an emergency meeting after attacks on several Sufi shrines by Salafists.


• The World Heritage Sites of Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali were occupied by Islamic hardliners. Two main bouts of attacks in Timbuktu saw widespread damage, including 11 of the city's 16 Sufi mausoleums attacked with pickaxes and the sacred door of the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque smashed. As the Salafist occupiers were driven out of Timbuktu by French troops in January, the rebels attempted to destroy ancient manuscript in the city’s libraries. Fortunately, the bulk of these collections had already been hidden elsewhere.


• Also this year, Human Rights Watch warned of greater sectarianism in the Syrian conflict as countryside churches were attacked and a Shiite place of worship was destroyed in the village of Zarzour. The act has been attributed to Sunni opposition groups.

With thanks to Irfan Al-Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation