Mail & Guardian

Opinion: When culture is the enemy

06 Feb 2013 11:42 | Mpho Moshe Matheolane

The rebels in Mali have not realised that their biggest weapon is that which they seek to destroy. (AFP)

The rebels in Mali have not realised that their biggest weapon is that which they seek to destroy. (AFP)

When culture is announced the enemy, it is often an indication of intense insecurity on the part of the party that makes such a declaration. By "culture", I mean the concept in all of its creative and artistic manifestations. It is well understood that in times of conflict it is often culture and its symbols that suffer first and last at the hands of the victors.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, almost 20 000 artefacts and objets d'art were removed and cultural property was the smokescreen that was used against any attacks on the military objectives of Iraq. When the US invaded Iraq in order to "save" its people from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, it too was implicated in cultural looting. Luckily, or rather conveniently for the US and the looters who used its sham of a war against Iraq as a means to enrich themselves, the US was not party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict despite its ratification by over 100 nations.

This means that little or no action could be carried out against the US nor could the country be made to act on the findings of cultural property looting. To this day, Iraq's cultural treasure remains in the collections of those who claim to be safe-guarding it until Iraq is back on its feet. Now obviously, one cannot say that the looting involved in the US-Iraq invasion is a symptom of the insecurity stated in the opening of this article but consider the recent calamity of Mali's Timbuktu and it should begin to make a bit more sense.

There are a few ways to consider extremist Islamic rebels who partially destroyed the Timbuktu manuscripts a few weeks ago. In the first instance, they were the insecure organisation that realised that its ideas were not finding the reception they initially hoped for and resorted to cultural terrorism of sorts in order to wipe the slate clean enough for their brand of ideology to take root.

These rebel groups are not that different from the US's invading forces, which have left countries like Afghanistan and Iraq politically and culturally destitute in their benevolent acts of delivering them into freedom.

There is no way in which you can claim to deliver freedom to anyone and then restrict their expression of that freedom. The rebel groups in Mali said they wanted to free the country from the grip of western influence but they sought to do so by restricting and destroying the very things that made Mali the home of the legends that belonged to it. For Mali to produce artists such as Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate and Salif Keita is in no way owing to Western domination. If these rebels do not understand this simple fact then they certainly do not have an idea of what to do with power that is their overambitious goal.

Thanks to the actions of the rebel groups, France has come to the rescue of the country that was part of its former colony of French West Africa. Like the US, France is espousing ideas of delivering freedom but we are yet to get the whole truth of this current mix of things. I am however compelled to admit that the French have, in their yet-to-be-known motives, managed to save an important aspect of Mali with the obvious help of other countries, among which is South Africa, the sponsor behind the manuscripts that almost saw complete annihilation at the hands of the extremists.

What I really wish could become clear and obvious to rebel groups such as those in Mali is the simple realisation that their greatest weapon is the very culture and history of expression that they wish to destroy.

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