The first man to go on trial for the destruction of some of the world’s cultural heritage appeared in court at The Hague on August 22 as reported by the BBC. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was expected to plead guilty to helping to destroy nine shrines and a mosque while a member of the Islamist group Ansar al Dine.
Ansar al Dine occupied Timbuktu in Mali for several months. The destruction he is accused of took place in 2012. The group was driven out of Timbuktu by French forces in 2013.
The trial marks a triple first: He is the first person to go on trial for the destruction of cultural heritage rather than for participation in massacres. He is also the first Islamist extremist to go on trial at the ICC. If he pleads guilty as expected, he will be the first person to so do.
The trial shows that the international community recognizes the extreme damage done to a country and to civilization as a whole by the destruction of ancient cultural treasures. By destroying the relics of humanity’s past, extremist groups rob states of a link to their own culture and degrade their future. It is a crime not just against those who are living, but against those not yet born.
Timbuktu was a center of both trade and Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries and was long-considered one of the world’s valuable cultural treasures, even before its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Not only did the Islamist militias destroy mausoleums belonging to Timbuktu’s founders, venerated as saints by the country’s citizens, but they burned thousands of irreplaceable Islamic manuscripts, thus destroying part of the collective knowledge of Islamic civilization.
Human history is the process of each generation attempting to make the world better than the one they inherited, building on the achievements of their ancestors and learning from what they did and what they did not do.
Sometimes we succeed and make things better, sometimes things get worse. But when a group decides to eradicate a section of our collective experience by destroying ancient buildings and manuscripts, they deprive future generations of access to that knowledge, to that part of our collective past.
In so doing they make the world a poorer place for all of us.