I WAS once in Timbuktu. In those days, three decades ago, the desert city was to most people little more than a synonym for the most remote place on earth: Timbuctoo, a fabled city like El Dorado or Atlantis. Today, the obscurantist vandalism of Islamist extremists has dragged it into grim political reality.
Timbuktu is an extraordinary place. The sands of the Sahara blow through the streets and pile themselves against the mud walls of ancient pyramid-like structures that are studded with withered wooden beams. The three great mosques and the 16 mausoleums erected over the tombs of sufi saints are the legacy of one of the world’s great civilisations. From the 13th century onwards, trade in salt, slaves, and gold made this one of the richest places on earth — and, for centuries, a great centre of learning, music, and worship.
It was these mosques and mausoleums that were the subject of the iconoclastic fury of the head of the Islamist Morality Police, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who this week pleaded guilty to destroying ancient cultural artefacts at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Some have criticised the prosecution of al-Mahdi, describing it as merely “a trial of stones and earth”. The ICC has hitherto dealt with issues of the gravity of genocide, murderous ethnic cleansing, and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Why has there not been a “flesh-and-blood” trial for the murder, rape, and torture of civilians under his group’s imposition of their narrow version of sharia, Amnesty International has asked.
Priceless cultural artefacts, of course, can never take priority over human life. But there is also a more pragmatic objection. One of the dangers of prioritising this type of prosecution is that it shifts the grounds of our conflict with jihadist extremism from the absolute to the relative. This opens us to accusations of a subtler brand of the cultural imperialism of which intolerant men such as al-Mahdi stand accused.
Violence against people contravenes human dignity. You do not have to be a Westerner to see respect for human life as a universal value; dignity is inherent in the human condition. In contrast, artefacts are a celebration of the subjective world-view of a particular culture. Cultural conflicts have been evident throughout human history in the iconoclasm of Byzantium, Puritan England, or the French Revolution. Stones from monasteries were taken to build English country houses, just as gold from the Roman Forum was removed to adorn St Peter’s in Rome.
It was an American, Samuel P. Huntington, who came up with the term “clash of civilisations” to talk about the fault-lines that imperil the world in the post-Cold War era. But it is a notion on which the so-called Islamic State has seized with alacrity. Polarisation is basic to its strategy. It strives to drive a wedge between its straitened version of Islam and others (including other Muslims, as the destruction of Islamic monuments in Timbuktu shows).
Destroying the cultural heritage of others is wrong. But we should take care not to walk into the trap of prioritising prosecutions for that over the defence of human rights.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.