From Timbuktu, a timeless lesson

In a first, a jihadist is charged with a war crime for destroying ancient cultural sites. The case before the International Criminal Court reflects a legal pushback against such destruction and a moral reinforcement to preserve humanity’s most timeless heritage.

A 2012 photo shows one of Timbuktu's ancient shrines, tied to the local Sufi version of Islam and that were attacked by Al Qaeda-linked Islamists as idolatrous.

Of all the possible responses to violent extremists, here is one that is both new and universal: On March 1, an alleged Islamist militant appeared before the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged with the destruction of cultural monuments as a war crime. The man, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, is accused of leading the 2012 attack by an Al Qaeda affiliate on 600-year-old religious shrines in Timbuktu, an age-old Saharan city in the African nation of Mali.

Besides possibly setting a legal precedent for the protection of civilization’s greatest works, a conviction in the ICC case could send a message to all violent jihadists: that attacks on world heritage sites are as much a violation of international norms as terrorist attacks on innocent civilians.

A guilty verdict, in other words, would be a moral verdict against harmful intolerance toward the ancient artworks and monuments of other religions.

The 2012 attacks in Timbuktu, once a great spiritual learning center for Islam, were part of a brief takeover of northern Mali by groups of militants. The destruction of many mausoleums, shrines, and Arabic manuscripts – all on UNESCO’s World Heritage list – was aimed at eradicating icons deemed contrary to Islamic theology.

The attacks were similar to the 2001 destruction of the 1700-year-old rock carvings of giant Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Or the recent demolition at sites from ancient Mesopotamian civilizations by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as other sites in Libya.

These treasures have been long preserved as a reminder of humanity’s desire for meaning and for self-reflection beyond the limits of materiality. Some reveal the earliest desires for understanding eternity, a common theme in almost every religion.

The ICC case is not alone in pushing back on such destruction.

UNESCO has led an effort to rebuild Timbuktu’s revered mausoleums. Its director general, Irina Bokova, said the restoration, which was completed last month, is “irrefutable proof that unity is possible and peace is even stronger than before. We did it and we can do it again.”

Also last month, the UN body arranged for a nonmilitary task force of Italian art detectives and restorers, dubbed “cultural peacekeepers,” to be on call to protect heritage sites from any theft or destruction, especially by “terrorist activities.”

These actions reflect the idea that each generation is entitled to enjoy the universal values of humanity’s shared cultural heritage. The ancient artworks, monuments, and literature may be mere symbols from long ago, but they help point to timeless ideals. Destroying them may be a war crime, or as the ICC prosecutor described the Timbuktu attacks, “a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religion and historical roots.” But preserving them is an act of hope.

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