In July 2012, Ansar Dine, an extremist Salafist group linked to Al-Qaeda in Mali used axes, shovels and other tools 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 had been closed for centuries in sacred belief that opening it will bring immense misfortune. The outrage against this destruction was widespread and there were several attempts to save the monuments and preserve the ancient manuscripts not just by large organizations like UNESCO but also by smaller, local organizations. The most clandestine one, Mamma Haider Library, smuggled up to 350,000 manuscripts from forty-five different libraries. However, since then, we have become accustomed to news of monuments and artifacts as targets of deliberate destruction. The war in Syria with its complete lack of regard for human life and heritage, and the proliferation of spectacular violent acts by ISIS have not only become commonplace but have found a riveted audience in the global North. Videos of ISIS hacking away at statues from the Assyrian and Akkadian eras in Mosul’s central museum were circulated in 2015. Most recently, militants rampaged across Palmyra in Syria blowing up a tetrapylon, a part of a Roman theatre and the 2000-year old temple of Bel. There is a tendency to view these acts as exceptional, categorically “abnormal” and without precedent but it is worthwhile to explore such rage against monuments and ancient heritage as part of a continuum within the history of our troubled world.
French philosopher George Bataille wrote of the intrinsic violence and fear radiated by monuments that loom above and around us. “Great monuments are raised up like dams,” he writes, “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” (“Architecture,” 1929). For Bataille, the storming of Bastille reflected the animosity people felt toward the monuments that had become their masters. He illustrates that human order is bound up with the architectural order thus giving 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 insists, “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 the souls of societies or metaphors of progress or symbols of national pride but show 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. Calling the colony a fundamentally compartmentalized world, Frantz Fanon explained that the colonist’s sector is made of stone, steel, lights, paved roads, clean streets, and even the garbage is wonderfully filled with “undreamed-of leftovers.” The colonized’s sector which consists of the Medina, the reservation or shanty-town is a cramped space filled with piles of people who are famished and “angry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, light” (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961). While these two compartments co-exist, the colonized fantasizes about taking over the colonizers sector. An even more important aspect of this dual universe is the dividing line of the border, which is controlled by an unmitigated violence. The “regime of oppression” is enabled by the figure of the police officer or soldier who manages this border space through the creation of barracks, checkpoints and police stations. In the violent moment of decolonization, Fanon claims that the dreams of the colonized take on a spatial quality. 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.”
Postcolonial societies abound with examples of unusual desecrations of their colonial heritage. For example, in Fort-de-France in Martinique — the island of Frantz Fanon’s birth — a statue of Empress Josephine was erected in 1856. Josephine had married Napoléon Bonaparte in 1796 and was allegedly responsible for influencing her husband in the re-establishment of slavery in 1802. The statue was preserved as a symbol of French slave history until quite recently. In 1991, a group of activists slammed the head of this statue and splattered red blood on the neck and chest, thus performing a beheading by guillotine, evoking France’s brutal methods which was liberally used during the French Revolution, and then went to have quite a vibrant afterlife in the colonies — it was used in South Vietnam until 1959 and in Algeria right until the 1960s. Josephine’s marble head was never found.
Léopold Lambert and I have been discussing rage against the monuments for the past few years and I am particularly drawn to his claim that “ideologies enacted through colonialism — in that case, systematically linked to slavery — or imperialism requires not only architecture to implement themselves, but also material symbol to provide a dominant narrative. When the statue of Joséphine was installed in Fort-de-France, it was not only a way to acknowledge the ‘local’ origin of the Empress in the island, but also to perpetuate the European domination on both the Afro-Caribbean and Native populations” (The Funambulist, 2013).
Governance and domination requires a reinforcement of the distinct stamp of their identity which manifests itself through the material and symbolic spaces occupied by statues, for example. Yet this dominant narrative expressed through the statue is countered by an equally strong visual performance in an anti-colonial or postcolonial moment. Lambert explains that, “through the absence of the head, as well as the red paint stains that are here to ensure the understanding of this counter-narrative, the statue is wearing the signs of the defeat of the system that was both its essence and its purpose.”
Similar performative acts upon works of architecture have taken place during the postcolonial phase of disillusionment with new politics and leaders. They often find expression in angry, disenfranchised groups who enact very specific types of destruction. Ghana, for example, acknowledged its tremendous debt to the intellectually inspired, pan-Africanist leadership of Kwame Nkrumah after gaining independence from England in 1957. However, nine years after Nkrumah was sworn in as President, discontent and bitterness about his leadership became commonplace. His industrialization projects led to unprecedented borrowing and debt and his stance seemed to have become more and more authoritarian. As with many African leaders during the Cold War, Nkrumah was ousted in an armed coup in 1966. Demonstrators marched through the streets of Accra carrying banners against the former President and Ghanain Armed Forces instigated a coup. Janet Berry Hess describes it thus:
Immediately after Nkrumah’s overthrow, thousands of demonstrators in Accra marched in the streets, carrying signs and banners denouncing the former President. The Evening News reported on 2 March 1966, that a “sheep was slaughtered” and libation poured for the successful overthrow of the wicked regime of Nkrumah;” the monumental statue of Nkrumah — which had been damaged in an explosion attributed to the actions of “saboteurs and anti-Socialists” in 1961 — was toppled and beheaded. (“Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana,” Africa Today, 2000).
Almost thirty-five years later, in an attempt to ignite nationalist pride and evoke anticolonial sentiment, President Jerry Rawlings reinstated the Nkrumah legacy with the Kwame Nkrumah National Park and Mausoleum and it was no coincidence that this was the year of presidential and legislative elections. Here, not only was the beheaded statue placed upright once again, the severed head was placed alongside. A new statue of Nkrumah was also unveiled, this time in regal, gold African clothing as opposed to the western clothing of the previous. This dizzying back and forth between architectural symbols points to the ways in which the collective consciousness of people under any government or regime are manipulated to serve various political ends through such artifacts. Thus, it is no surprise that there is an immediate, urgent and unmitigated political reality expressed by works of architecture, and these structures are instinctively obliterated first in situations where long standing discontentment gives way to collective rage.
In Mali, the destruction of the tombs and cultural artifacts seems to have been motivated by a host of factors. After six decades of the French colonial rule, 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. 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 on Islam and its endless misappropriations by Al-Qaeda. On the one hand, analysts, intellectuals and historians depict the rebels as having planned a strategic sabotaging of history and heritage, and on the other hand, they are characterized as religious fanatics and ignorant “hooligans” who misunderstand Islam and have no idea how gravely important these works were. In fact, this is a flagrant continuation of colonial and racist stereotyping, especially given the fact that American soldiers watched nonchalantly when the national museum was looted in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion. Furthermore, it was later revealed that the U.S had also participated in the looting and illegally kept several of these treasures.
Lambert offers some useful terms for understanding our relationship to iconoclasm which is quite simply the heretical destruction of religious symbols. The iconoclast then is dedicated to destroying those representations of God and an iconodule is a person committed to cherishing and preserving this representation. Bridging the contradiction between the two types, he claims that,
Iconoclasts and iconodules are therefore part of the same ’family.’ They both understand the power of the icon — iconoclasts might even understand it more — and simply differ in their reaction to it. While the iconodules worship the artifact for what it implies, the iconoclasts, exasperated by what they fathom, crave its destruction
(The Funambulist, 2012).
In the case of Mali, 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 and have been sporadically happening since 1912. However during the reign of Gadhafi in neighboring Libya, the Tuareg were cast as capable mercenaries and were trained as fighters. For the Tuareg, this was a convenient way of earning money and it also strengthened weapons capacity for their rebellions. In addition, it helped their goal to secede and form the independent nation of Azawad. 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. A small part of the Tuareg population sees no alternative to joining this organization, which sustains itself on brute force but also gives handouts upon recruitment.
But not all acts of destruction can be valorized as being anti-colonial performance or as expressing opposition to problematic governments. 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 an attempt 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.
The case of ISIS is quite different. Michael Busch and I argued in a 2014 article for Pakistani newspaper Dawn that ISIS are carrying out an ongoing imperial project across Syria and Iraq, and these are unabashed attempts to carve out a fresh narrative of power to demarcate territory and redefine it without remorse. Far from being something new, the violent erasure of historical memory has been a recurring feature of state-making efforts by occupying powers. This is an active attempt to draw attention to themselves and a craving for inclusion into larger institutional networks across the region and indeed the world. Their constant streaming of videos on social media suggests their need for the whole world’s attention and continuous engagement. The shocking subversion of Western power embedded in these acts — which are designed to be as outrageous as possible — has been key to ISIS’s recruitment and growth.
It is not an exaggeration to say we live in an age of desecrated monuments. At a time when the legacy of colonialism endures, neoliberal economics penetrates daily life and the degradation of marginalized people and places continues unabated, it is no surprise that rage against monuments becomes a necessary impulse. Though we cannot support ISIS or Salafist groups in Mali, we can certainly explore the instinct to desecrate and destroy without a bourgeois, knee-jerk attachment to values of preservation and curation. The impulse to preserve artifacts certainly deserves some context and the way in which this impulse is manifested today points to the fact that it is deeply connected to power. Doors from the Persepolis in Paris’ Louvre, Akkadian treasures in New York’s MET, an entire gate from ancient Turkey in Berlin’s Pergammon or just pure loot like the Indian Kohinoor diamond in London’s Buckingham palace are evidence of who has the power to preserve, restore and narrate the story of cultural artifacts. Meanwhile, the widespread disdain in the West for Egypt’s poorly organized and badly funded museum or the anger against India’s neglected artworks illustrates how the balance of colonial power has come to be manifested. The impulse to preserve is thus an impulse to assert ownership over a certain history. It is no surprise then that after several hundred years of such a power imbalance, we find its counterpoint in rage against the monuments and in the impulse to swarm, demolish, destroy.