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Tunisia: Tragedy Strikes – 2 – Targeting The Country’s Cultural Heritage

March 24, 2015

Bardo Museum(Note: Also published at Foreign Policy In Focus)

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(Part One)

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Tunisia: Tragedy Strikes – 2

The Bardo – Symbol of Tunisia’s Rich Cosmopolitan Past…

At least from the initial reports, that while now 23 people were killed and 47 wounded, it appears that none of the Bardo’s collection of priceless historical cultural gems, were damaged in the terrorist attack, thus related the Washington Post in its March 18, edition, the day after the slaughter although the building’s exterior ground surface was broken up in places. The Post article went on to describe the Bardo’s collection as “one of the world’s greatest collections of mosaics”…“unequaled,” “outweighing those of the Metropolitan Museum…at least when it comes to Roman mosaics,” its only rival perhaps being the mosaic collection of the University of Naples which houses those preserved from Pompeii. It compares that the Naples’ mosaic collection, from a particular moment in time, that of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption, with the Bardo’s which spans more than 400 years.

Similar to the Southwest of the United States where archaeological remains are often in excellent condition, the generally dry and hot North African climate, so close to the Sahara, is a suitable environment for the preservation of archaeological items. It has been said that the Roman ruins in Tunisia are better preserved than those in Rome. From 146 BC for the next four hundred years, “Carthage,” today a Tunis upscale suburb – the pearl of Phoenician Mediterranean civilization was, along with neighboring Algeria, the bread basket of the Roman empire producing grains, delicious fruit, olive oil in great supply. That period is vividly portrayed in the Bardo’s mosaic collection. Three years ago, looking out from Amilcar, named after a Carthaginian general Rome and statesman, I looked upon one of those fields whose wheat harvest fed Rome and which has produced a rich supply of food for 3000 years, maybe more realizing I was walking in an area breathtakingly rich in human history.

While the mosaics from the Roman period of Tunisian history are among the museum’s prize possessions, the collection is by no means limited to that period. It spans the length and breath of Tunisian history, from pre-historic to the modern. Much of the country’s rich and long Islamic history and culture is documented there as well, but there are also items from its Phoenician, Byzantine Periods as well as some materials from its pre-Arabic Berber populations, (the proper term for them is Amâzigh) believed to have descended from Southern Europe between 6000 and 2500 BC. In the Bardo, most of the collections come from out of the Tunisian land itself, sincerely reflecting the national history, which is rarely the case for many other museums. All this is to suggest that although today Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, that their culture is, in the deepest sense of the term, an amalgam civilization, which draws on many historic cultural themes.

Tunisia’s geography helps explain this too, located as it is on what can be considered the border of the eastern and western branches of the Mediterranean Sea, separated from nearby Sicily, less than sixty miles away as the crow flies by the “Sicilian Channel” (also called the Tunisian Straits). In fact the northeast extension of Tunisia, Cap Bon, is so close to Sicily (one can make out Sicily from there on a clear day) that there is talk of constructing a 60 mile underwater tunnel linking the two, and by doing thus creating a “sort of” land bridge between the European and African continents. All this is to emphasize the profoundly cosmopolitan nature of the place, a crossroads between North Africa and the Middle East, between Europe and North Africa, between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. No one cultural or religious tendency has a monopoly either on Tunisian history nor Tunisian Arab-Islamic culture today, not even Islam, for however influential it has been for some time and remains today.

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on June 30, 2012 in front of shocked locals, witnesses said. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on June 30, 2012 in front of shocked locals, witnesses said.

ISIS-Daaesh’s Other Target: The Middle East and North Africa’s Cultural Heritage….From Bamiyan to Timbuktu

It is this extraordinarily rich historical culture, that like the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Islamic fanatics in Mali, that Tunisia’s Islamic fundamentalist fascists will most likely target in the future even if this time, the Bardo was only the scene of mass murder, not cultural historical genocide. They have come to define essentially any and all cultural activities, symbols not in line with their narrow versions of Islam as being heretical and have launched a 21st Century inquisition against any and all things with which they disagree. The rules are simple: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax for non-believers or be killed. The goal is to purge the region from as much of its religious cultural diversity as possible and to homogenize Islam according to Salafist-Wahhabist precepts.

While Western governments and media look with appropriate horror on what amounts to the destruction of what are many of the jewels of the overall human cultural heritage, and rightfully tag those committing these acts as terrorists and bigots, these same governments (in particular the United States and France) downplay what has been a century of collusion with right-wing Islamic fundamentalism and the long term support of certain Middle East governments, strategic allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that have given birth to and in many ways subsidize these same movements.

This widespread effort to destroy the cultural heritage of non Sunni fundamentalist Muslims also has as its goal to deny people their history, their way of understanding their own situation in the world, in the past and today. Interesting that during the colonial period, European colonizers, French, British, Portuguese come to mind, went out of their way to make archaeological studies in colonial lands illegal. Sunni fundamentalists take their cultural factionalism one step further by physically destroying religious and cultural treasures physically, to purge history so to speak in an effort to suggest that all history begins and ends with their version and interpretation of the life of Mohammed and the creation of the Koran.

Although this cultural nihilism has been taken to an extreme in ISIL’s policy of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing in the regions of Syria and Iraq it controls, ISIL is building on a modern legacy that started in Afghanistan. In March, 2001, in a prelude to ISIS’ current archaeological frenzy, just a few months prior to 9-11, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Taliban leader in Afghanistan ordered the destruction of what are- or were – referred to as the Buddha’s of Bamiyan. The Bamiyan Buddhas were two 6th century monumental statues carved into the side of a cliff in Bamiyan Province, some 140 miles northwest of Kabul. Declared idols, the statues, something akin to an ancient Afghan Mt. Rushmore, were declared idols and dynamited to bits. Although considered a remote region today, in the 6th century when the Buddhas were first carved out of the sandstone cliff, Bamiyan lay along the path of the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe and was a prosperous region with a sizable and prosperous Buddhist population. They were considered among the most famous cultural landmarks in the region and, like the Bardo Museum, an indication of Afghanistan’s rich multi-cultural, multi-religious past.

The poor Buddhas had suffered significantly prior to their final destruction. Even prior to capturing the region, the local Taliban commander, one Abdul Wahed, had announced his intention to blow up the structures in 1997. The next year, after they gained control, the Taliban drilled holes in the head to place dynamite but were prohibited from lighting the fuse by Mullah Omar at that time. A few years later, urged on by the fundamentalist clerics that make up a key element of his base, Mullah Omar would reverse course and order the statues destroyed. It was a part of a national movement to crack down on “un-Islamic” elements in Afghan society and was soon followed by bans on all forms of imagery, music and sports, television in accordance with their narrow interpretation of Sharia. When the destruction met with international condemnation, Taliban spoke people responded that it had the support of 400 of religious clerics from across the country who had reached agreement that the statues were “against Islam” and heretical.

Keep in mind that while non-Muslim cultural symbols are targeted, regardless if they are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, that other Muslim cultural symbols are also fair game. In Iraq today Sunni extremists have rampaged against Shia holy sites. In North Africa, Nigeria, Mali where the tradition of building small shrines for people considered holy, called marabouts, there has already been a campaign by Al Qaeda-like elements to desecrate and destroy them. In Mali,  these same rampaging elements, after destroying the tombs of seven local Muslim saints,  smashed down the  “end of the world” gate to Timbuktu considered among the most sacred sites in this ancient, extraordinarily culturally rich city; using similar logic, Egyptian Islamic militants have called for the destruction of the pyramids and the Sphinx. Only through the heroic efforts of a few brave souls were the precious thousands of Islamic Sufi texts housed in Timbuktu saved from destruction in early 2013, when Islamic radicals, who had overwhelmed Tuareg rebels seized that ancient city. Still before fleeing the city in retreat, the Salafist rebels took the time to destroy two important collections.  This was part and parcel of an extended campaign. As a PewResearch Center Report on Religious Hostilities noted in northern Mali, for example, Islamist extremists implemented harsh penalties under sharia law, including executions, amputations and flogging. They also destroyed churches and banned baptisms and circumcisions. Hundreds of Christians fled to the southern part of the country during the year.

The Rise of the Tunisian Salafist Tendency

Along the same lines, in the years when Tunisian Salafism was given a free hand, due to the then ruling Ennahdha Party turning a blind eye, dozens of marabouts were pillaged and destroyed, especially in the western interior of the country. In the year just after January, 2011, when the Ben Ali – Trabelsi entourage fled the country,  independent Islamist groups took control of as many as one-fifth of the country’s 5,000 mosques following the 2011 revolution. This according to Tunisian media reports. In this period also, many Islamic congregations ousted their imams, claiming they were too closely associated with the Ben Ali era. In so many cases these more religiously moderate imams were replaced with more radical Salafist types, some of whose sermons included anti-Jewish and anti-Christian messages, including calling for the killing of non-Muslim citizens. Government claims to have retaken control of most of them ring hollow. Similar attempts, essentially through what amount to thug tactics, to “Islamicize” the country’s higher educational system led to confrontations throughout the country with the Ennahdha-led government doing little to nothing to protect the educational rights if its faculty and students.  One of the more famous cases concerned the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tunis’ Manouba campus, Habib Kazdagli, who attempted to prevent Salafist thugs from wrecking his office and intimidating students while Tunisian security personnel stood by and did nothing. After the event, it was not the disrupters who were charged, but Dean Kazdagli.

Although not yet on the level of the ISIS fury of cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria, in Tunisia there have also been attacks on non-Muslim sites as well, the most serious of which was the 2002 bombing of a synagogue “El Ghriba” it is called on the Tunisian island of Djerba which killed 19 people, mostly German tourists. Al Qaeda of the Maghreb claimed credit. It is believed to be 2,600 years old and as such is one of the world’s oldest synagogues.  Christian churches too have been desecrated including the Russian Orthodox Church in Tunis. This intimidation and cultural destruction intensified dramatically after January, 2011 with the accumulated number of incidents adding up to a deeply disturbing overall picture, suggesting, once again, that all is not well in Tunisia and the “Tunisian miracle” , well, something less than a miracle and more of a growing crisis. True, that to date the Bardo Museum has not been targeted, but given its multi-cultural historical thematic – and the country’s continued poor, botches security, that could easily change.

Despite repeated protests against Salafist abuses, clear indications that Tunisian society as a whole remains deeply moderate on cultural and religious questions, the disturbances continue to pile up. Even a partial look at the record is disturbing, if not chilling. One U.S. State Department report on religious freedom, citing such desecrations in 2012 alone, notes:

There were reports of societal abuses based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Individuals believed to be Salafists attacked targets across the country they deemed “un-Islamic,” including a church and synagogues. Objecting to the presence of graves of venerated Sufi scholars in mosques, individuals believed to be Salafists attacked dozens of Sufi religious shrines they believed were idolatrous. For example, the police arrested five Salafist violent extremists for vandalizing, burglarizing, and setting fire to the Sufi Saida Manoubia Shrine on October 15. Salafists also attacked hotels and individuals that sell alcohol on September 3 in Sidi Bouzid and October 27 in Tunis. Salafists threatened and attacked events they associated with Shia Islam. For example, on August 17 Salafists attacked a pro-Palestinian meeting an association of Tunisian Shiites organized. Salafist harassment of the Russian Orthodox Church continued throughout the year. In addition to the March attack, a Salafist forced his way into the church in April and demanded that the bishop embrace Islam and remove Christian crosses and iconography from the church.

The State Department’s report on these abuses for the next year, 2013, notes that desecration and religious intimidation continued. Among the incidents reported:

  • After Jewish graves in Sousse were desecrated in January, then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali expressed “deep indignation at any criminal act undermining Tunisia’s cultural and historical heritage.” There were incidents of anti-Semitic speech during the year. For example, during a Salafist rally in March some participants engaged in anti-Semitic chants and calls for violence against Jews.
  • In June, six Islamists were sentenced to five years in prison for attacking a Sufi shrine in the Manouba governorate in October 2012.
  • Following a January 12 attack on a shrine in Sidi Bou Said, the government established a department at the National Institute of Patrimony, under authority of the Ministry of Culture, to protect historic and cultural monuments. According to the Ministry of Culture, as many as 26 shrines were vandalized during the year, but their locations in remote areas made it difficult to identify the perpetrators.
  • Objecting to the practice of praying at the graves of venerated Sufi scholars as idolatrous, individuals believed to be Salafists vandalized at least 26 Sufi shrines.
  • In March a group of 10 Salafists attacked a police station in Siliana in northwest Tunisia for providing refuge to a man they accused of blasphemy. That same month, 30 to 40 Salafists blocked the entrance to a theater and told an Italian actress there is no place for Jewish women in Tunisia, according to press reports.
Destroyed

End of the World Gate Destroyed

These incidents and others continued throughout the year. These State Department reports, while accurate in so much as the incidents described, greatly understate the problem which has reached chronic proportions and which the newly installed government has hardly addressed. As someone, well versed in Tunisian current events, put it in an email, “And the list of religious attacks does not even start on all the attacks on mixed student venues and buses, private art exhibition and films, which have been so chilling.” Yes, this is quite accurate. Many of these nihilistic, culturally factional tendencies and problems continue to plague the country. It will take time – years – to reverse such trends. While improved security could help some, ultimately addressing Salafist radicalism is a socio-economic problem as much as a religious issue. It is on this front that the different post-Ben Ali governments, including the present one, have shown, beyond verbal assurances that they are addressing the problem, a special weakness. It is not so much drones, improved satellite intelligence, beefing up the Tunisian security apparatus with French and American advisers that will stem the current Salafist wave in Tunisia but infra-structural development, a new realizable economic vision and program that can create jobs for the country’s un-enfranchised youth that would be far more effective. Meanwhile, the Bardo remains, for the moment, with its rich cultural heritage in tact. I cannot help admitting that I worry about its fate.

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