Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cultural Exploitation from Bamiyan to Timbuktu

The Taliban's demolition of the giant statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan in 2001 and Ansar Dine's recent destruction of shrines in Timbuktu frame tactical exploitation of cultural property in the first decade of the 21st century from Mali to Afghanistan. Amidst the Arab spring, Tunisia and Egypt suffered looting of archaeological sites, and in Syria, collateral damage and targeting of historic structures continues. The exploitation in Timbuktu and Bamiyan, however, share a particular tactic of political violence that may indicate an emerging trend.
Al-Qaeda dominates northern Mali, desecrates Timbuktu tombBoth the Taliban and Ansar Dine claimed religious grounds for the destruction, both intended to gain publicity, and both garnered international response, but the degree of each aspect differs in each case.  Since the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Iraq suffered wartime looting and collateral damage of cultural sites in 2003 and nations from Turkey, to Italy, to Peru continue to demonstrate the viability of cases for repatriation of cultural patrimony.  Consequently, targeting of cultural property appears to have greater effect in that the destruction in Timbuktu not only echoes but also amplifies the tactics of the Taliban.
In both cases, the militants claimed to be destroying idolatrous symbols. In the case of Taliban, the statues represented a different religion, while Ansar Dine justifies destruction by associating targeted shrines with a local Sufi version of Islam, which doesnot adhere to a strict version of Islamic law. In both cases, the acts of the militants drew international calls to stop the wanton destruction of cultural heritage. In 2001, nations worldwide, including Muslim nations, and UNESCO did speakout and offered humanitarian aid to halt the destruction, while now UNESCO has placed Timbuktu on the list of endangered heritage sites and the InternationalCriminal Court has threatened to treat the acts of Ansar Dine as war crimes.
A shift to targeting symbols within a particular religion and a shift to criminal prosecution in response to destruction both suggest an increasing significance of cultural security to international affairs.   

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