Protecting religious sites – History and Faith cannot be battlegrounds

SHAFAQNA – “We are not makers of history. We are made by history” –  Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is History but the compounded echo of our consciousness, the one anchor that makes us whole, and above all link us to a time long gone but never forgotten?

If we would like to think ourselves free, we may want to consider – if only for a fleeting moment,that we are all but the products of our environment. We are our heritage and our respective culture, we are what our forefathers believe: either in rejection or in compliance. Our experiences shaped us, our traditions made us, and our beliefs allowed for our minds to be moulded … however and whichever way that may be.

Without our history we are but drifting orphans … sitting ducks one may argue to the will of tyrants. Without an understanding of what and who we are who is to stay what stories will be weaved around our ears? Who is to say what tales we will be fed and more troubling still believe.

History today has long been declared  war to, insidiously at first, covertly in the beginning … and now, today, this very moment war has broken in the cold light of day, and still we have failed to appreciate the many grave calamities such an attack will bring upon all of our heads.

The Prophet Muhammad once warned that an attack on any one member of the Ummah (Muslim community) is in fact an attack on the community as a whole – pointing thereof to the need to defend and of course protect all.

We could easily transposed this analogy to our particular situation and posit that any one attack on our history, whether religious, cultural or national is really an attack on History full stop.

History is worth protecting, preserving and restoring on the premise that it is! If we were ever to fool ourselves into believing that we could lose some of our past without damaging our collective humanity we might soon wake up strangers into our own backyard. Let’s just hope that it does not get to that.

Let’s just hope that organization such as the Baqee in the United States will commend enough traction to rally both public and international to their cause, since their cause is that of our collective right to our collective History, regardless of creed, ethnicity or social status.

From the looks of it, the Baqee’s efforts of late to speak against the poison of religious and cultural exclusionism – such as that expressed by Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, prompted new efforts to be spent towards the architecture of a global conservation effort.
Earlier this March UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova addressed a public briefing of the United Nations Security Council on “Maintenance of international peace and security: destruction and trafficking of cultural heritage by terrorist groups and in situations of armed conflict,” where the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2347 for the protection of heritage.

“The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, it has become a tactic of war to tear societies over the long term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing. This is why defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives,” Director-General Bokova told the Security Council, as she spoke in support of the resolution, with Executive Director of UNODC Youri Fedotov and Commander Fabrizio Parrulli of the Carabinieri Italiani.

Weapons are not enough to defeat violent extremism. Building peace requires culture also; it requires education, prevention, and the transmission of heritage. This is the message of this historic resolution,” she added.

The briefing by Director-General Bokova before the Security Council marked the first time a Director-General of UNESCO has been invited in this capacity. This alone clearly indicates how critical it has become for the international community to pull together and if anything, offers a common front against the hunger Wahhabi militants have displayed against our world most prized treasures.

The Director-General went on to explain that since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2199 in 2015, which prohibits trade in cultural property from Iraq and Syria, efforts are well-underway to disrupt terrorist financing through the illicit trafficking of antiquities. “In a global movement launched by UNESCO, some 50 States have strengthened their legislation and are sharing information and data, to dismantle trafficking routes, to facilitate restitutions … Together, UNESCO, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, customs services, the private sector and museums are all bolstering cooperation, coordinating new action,” she said.

UNESCO is guardian of a wide array of legal instruments that are of vital importance in the protection of cultural heritage. These include the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property on the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and its two Protocols, as well as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972).

Defeating “violent extremism” as Director-General Bokova put it will require of course more than grand declarations of intent … any hope we may have to save our History will demand courage, and integrity. More importantly still it will demand that we rise above whatever prejudices we may hold against those we may perceive as lesser, to realise that History neither abide by our border regulation, nor does this turn its nose at religious minorities.

Whether we are looking at the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth situated in the heart of the Christian quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City or the desolated site that is the Baqee Cemetery in Medina (Saudi Arabia) History needs to be restored to its glory so that our future could be preserved.

As for those militants who continue to chop and explode our heritage, we may want to realise that their actions equate to a grand genocide, since it is our memory they are claiming away – our right to cultural and religious individuality … in other words our right to be and to stand who we are!

Wahhabism – that ideology that lives on the lips of Saudi Arabia clerics, and exists in universities across the globe is most dangerous for its threat lies in its ability to dissolve our sense of self to imprint new realities.

Whenever stones are exploded into powdered dust we ought to see the death of nations … that we must oppose collectively.

One would think anyway!

By Catherine Shakdam – Director of the Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies


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