Earlier this week Ansar Dine and MNLA, a Tuareg sect who are separatists, attacked some of Timbuktu’s oldest mosques and heritage buildings armed with pickaxes whilst shouting “Allah O Akbar” which means “God is Great” in Arabic.
The group have links to Al-Qaida and see the Mosques and Shrines to the Sufi saints as against Sharia Law, and so they say it is their duty to destroy them, presumably to advance their own radical, extremist take on the religion.
In Islam there are strict prohibitions when it comes to depictions of human and animal figures in holy places and in art itself; so most mosques are decorated with geometric and arabesque shapes, which have come to define Islamic Art in western conscious. However, as with any religion, many have interpreted the Quran in different ways and you see these figures appear in different regions.
The enforcement of Islamic law and interpretation of the Quran by different nationalities have roots in the ancient cultures that predate the Arab invasions of around 630 AD, and this is why every Muslim country has its own identity and way of dealing with the religion.
The Arab leaders and appointed heads of state were very adaptable when it came to learning and taking up the customs of the ancient cultures in their occupied countries, despite the popular belief that they ruled by the sword.
There is no doubt that the invading armies had captured their territory with force, killing anyone who stood in their way, and they did indeed burn down many buildings, books and artefacts; however once in power they soon realized that to govern they could not keep up the scare tactics, otherwise they would have had much resistance from the public.
Through the surviving evidence from around the world one can clearly see that the newly appointed Islamist leaders changed much of their approach when in power. There are mosques and palaces with paintings and structures that clearly go against the modern teachings of the Quran. There are bathhouses with Roman inspired architecture and artwork depicting people enjoying wine and pleasures of the flesh during the Arab rule.
It is only as time went on and pressures from the wars started to take their toll that a stricter and extremer Islam started to become popular amongst the leading figures, and the fear once again started to be the tool they used to keep people in check.
Religious identity is not the same as cultural identity. Certainly religion is not a culture. Art from different so called Islamic countries differ tremendously, which I would agree might seem subtle to western eyes. One would have to travel to different regions of the Middle East and North Africa to discover these differences, because what we see in the museums and galleries are shaped by our perceived notion that Islamic art has a unifying theme and concept, otherwise we cannot assign them a wing or a space just to seem enlightened.
In backlash to us romanticizing art from those regions as Islamic and labelling them all with a same cultural identity, the hardliners are abusing their new found fear mongering methods to destroy what is left of those ancient cultures that once existed in the region, and terrorizing the people.
The Taliban destroyed the priceless Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan, the Mullahs are destroying Persian monuments, Ansar Dine and MNLA are destroying Timbuktu’s heritage buildings; what is next, the Muslim Brotherhood destroying the Pyramids?
It is only when we stop trying to be politically correct; it is only when we stop glamorizing religion ideologies as sacred; it is only when we stop defining people by their beliefs in God that we can escape the shackles of prejudice and start looking realistically at the problems we face from the fundamentalists.
Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and yes one must not live in the past, one must be innovative and progressive in vision to survive. If we carry on ignoring the issue of religious radicalism in any form, be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and pass it off as cultural differences we will have a bleak future to look forward to.