This time it really is a war to save civilisation

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

In the developed world we rather causally use the term “culture wars” to mean the clash of styles or modes of expression. In Mali we’re seeing something that really is, at one level, a culture war. However complex and ambiguous the European intervention against Islamist rebels in the huge west African state, an important part of what’s going on is a fight to protect one of the world’s great cultural resources.

Western powers have a long and disgraceful history of assaults on indigenous cultures. The idea of “a war to save civilisation” has always reeked of cynicism and hypocrisy. But this time they happen to be on the right side in a war in which the cultural stakes are very high.

There’s nothing unique about the psychotic hatred for art that exists among the Salafist rebels in Mali. The word “iconoclasm”, now oddly positive in its connotations, literally means “the breaking of images”.

Specific images have been attacked for political reasons, from Egyptian pharaohs defacing statues of their predecessors to French revolutionaries destroying paintings of kings to American troops toppling statues of Saddam Hussein.

But there’s a strain of something much deeper and more dangerous: a hatred of art itself. These spasms of anti-art hysteria can be enormously destructive. Virtually all of the treasures of early Byzantine art were wiped out in two periods of iconoclastic frenzy in the eighth and ninth centuries. The English Reformation of the 16th century was fuelled in part by attacks on the “idolatry” of image-making: the smashing of stained-glass windows, the whitewashing of painted biblical scenes. Seventeenth-century puritanism extended the assault to theatre: Shakespeare’s Globe was pulled down in 1644. All of these periodic assaults were based on theology, on the idea that art is an affront to God.

This is by way of saying that there is nothing particularly Islamic about the desire to eliminate art. It has to be recognised, though, that the most potent strain of hatred for art in the contemporary world is on the extreme fringes of Islam. A nihilistic assault on art is not a byproduct of the dementedly puritanical strain of radical Islam. It is right at its core.

This fanaticism may not seem to matter much in the overall context of an ideological movement that targets something much more precious than any work of art: human lives. But the radical Islamic assault on art is inextricable from its assaults on people. The Ground Zero of 9/11 is also a ground zero of ideas and expressions, a blank canvas on which the new Islamic order is the only thing that can be written. The dynamite the Taliban used to blow up the 1,700-year-old statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 prefigured the implosion of the Twin Towers a few months later.

In the case of Mali, the objects of this fury have been less physical. The Ansar Dine rebels have indeed attacked “un-Islamic” ancient mosques and Sufi shrines and mausoleums. But the main focus of their assault has been on one of the world’s great musical traditions. Mali is a pivotal place for global musical culture. It absorbed the influences of Persian and Islamic music, then spread those influences (through the violence of slavery) to North America.

Malian music is obviously deeply entwined with the country’s own cultures, especially through the hereditary families of griots whose functions in many ways mirror those of the file in Gaelic society, as keepers of oral traditions and tribal histories.

But there’s a reason why, in recent years, artists such as Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Salife Keita, Amadou and Mariam, Afel Boucoum and the Tuareg rock band Tinariwen have become so popular in the West. Alongside its strangeness, their music has an eerie familiarity to those of us raised on pop based on African-American traditions. As the bluesman Taj Mahal showed in his marvellous 1999 collaboration with Diabaté, Kulanjan, the affinities go very deep. Malian music has a genuine universality: it looks north to Iran and west to America.

This great treasure is under sustained attack from the radical Islamists, who have banned music in the vast swathes of the country they now control.

Their aim is apparently nothing less than the complete destruction of Mali’s musical heritage, a crime as grave in its own way as the destruction of Shakespeare’s Globe. Whatever misgivings one might have about western military interventions in African conflicts, it is difficult to regret the impulse to stop this attack before it succeeds.

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