Cultural genocide in modern times

Palmyra, Bel Temple. Photograph: Aign Bernhard

Art is an expression of undefined freedom for individuals and often the first to be attacked in war. Genocide today has also shaped itself into a phenomenon termed as ‘cultural genocide’: the systematic destruction of a specific culture. “As we passively watch, the citizens of Afghanistan struggle for basic expressions of cultural freedom such as even keeping pets or wearing makeup.”

Culture is a beautiful thread which binds autonomous individuals together and presents them with a pervading sense of identity. What must be remembered is that an attack on culture is tantamount to an attack on this very sense of identity or pride which collectively retains the ethnic group together. Cultural genocide has many facets to it. It ranges from destruction of a certain group’s art and history to the massacre of an entire group due to their ethnicity (ethnic cleansing) both of which we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria today.

Destruction in Afghanistan
Cultural destruction is an inevitable part of war, and we see its roots right from the time when Rome was infamously sacked and absolutely destroyed in 390 BC. In recent times, the glorious heritage of Kabul is being threatened. From the initial years of Soviet occupation, Kabul witnessed the destruction of its historical sites that we see today, namely when the Taliban burnt museums of art history or bombed the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan. The city is slowly being annihilated.

As we passively watch, the citizens of Afghanistan struggle for basic expressions of cultural freedom such as even keeping pets or wearing makeup. Women are mercilessly flogged for walking out of the house unaccompanied or for not wearing the hijab. And yet we passively watch.

After an Afghan refugee witnessed the destruction of his city, he stated that it is still very wonderful that people show interest in the past as it symbolises hope for the future.

9/11 represented an attack on the culture and pride of Americans more than the damage of material resources

Attacks on the West
Kabul is not the only one under attack, the celebrated history of various civilizations is under threat. What differentiates this era from the others is the bold and repeated attacks on the West as well. If we critically look at the 9/11 attacks, they represented an attack on the culture and pride of Americans more than the damage of material resources. Similarly, when the offices and editors of Charlie Hebdo were attacked in France, an attack was launched on the basic right of expression for a writer which is deemed inherent for the French. Human beings are sadly mercilessly attacking each other’s history and glory.

Justice
Various organizations of the United Nations are trying to counter cultural destruction with unmatched resilience. Legal mechanisms have grown and a good example would be of Timbuktu. Timbuktu in Mali was a centre for scholars and learning in ancient times and was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. However, in January 2012, rebel groups occupied the city and continued to wreck significant sites such as mausoleums and mosques which were constructed in the 12th century. Then, four years later, in October 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced an individual for nine years of prison on the charge of destruction of historic sites in Timbuktu.

The example of Timbuktu demonstrates the legal capacity present today to bring about justice and hopefully defer the individuals who attack historic and sacred sites. The freedom of artistic expression frequently symbolises revolution and hope therefore making it important to the people in any country or city facing war.

Palmyra, Syria. Photograph: Eustache Diemert
Palmyra, Syria. Photograph: Eustache Diemert

Amr Al-Azm, a renowned historian, remarked: “Once the current violence ends, the people of Syria will need to reconnect with symbols that once united them across religious and political lines.”