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Understanding why terrorists target art helps us cultivate tolerance

Monday March 26 2018

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The Egyptian chapter of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-Egypt) National Committee organised a meeting in Alexandria on the delicate topic of terrorism titled “Islamic Art Confronts Extremism” on March 21–23.

Egypt is a culturally rich country whose heritage collections date back centuries. It is home to the mummies of the pyramids. Alexandria is particularly famous as the home of the last pharaoh queen Cleopatra. In the recent past the physical representation of this heritage has been under threat by looters, vandalism and theft that is supported by an international market dealing in the illicit trading of cultural artefacts.
Syria, Iraq and to a certain extent Libya have also experienced devastating destruction of heritage by both extremists and or related activities. In Syria in particular ISIS has gone on a rampage on heritage sites since 2014 as the country is torn apart by civil war. With the destruction of human life and the suffering of the most vulnerable members of society — women and children — taking centre stage, the destruction of heritage has taken a back stage.


What is clear of course is that humans are the richest, most precious heritage resource in any nation. Their activities and the ensuing artefacts are the second most important, as they record where humans have been, giving useful direction in where they are going. The region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which today fall in both Syria and Iraq, is among areas with the richest recorded history in the world.

Their destruction or their being put at risk in the previously mentioned ways constitutes a destruction of the collective memory of the world and especially that of the world religions of Islam and Christianity and their turbulent interaction for centuries.

Islamic art spread all over the world with the spread of the religion. The art dates back to around the seventh century and includes glass, wood work, pottery, ceramics, carpets, embroidery and calligraphy and inscriptions in architecture. It is not limited to religious art, but rather it is culturally associated with people who inhabited areas that practised Islam.

It is very wide as it transcends time periods, the religion itself and has borrowed from the Roman, Byzantine, Medieval and even Chinese art. The Kenyan coast, which has traded with the Arabian Peninsula since 632 AD, has also been a beneficiary of this art. Whereas this art has been well acknowledged in architecture through Swahili doors in Kenya, the conference clearly indicated that it is found on carpets, bowls and utensils, and its beauty has created an entire culture that expresses the salient aspects of Islam.


The conference brought out the fact that Islamic art is laden with knowledge of rich heritage value. That is why terrorism would want to tear it apart in an effort to create an absence of knowledge. Ignorance in turn breeds fear of the unknown, creating a situation where humans are susceptible to non-pathogenic human illnesses of our time such as extremism.

Islamic art is also a symbol of beauty and freedom. The freedom of the human mind to create and spread its creations to all corners of the world. The beauty may be visual, physical or emotional. This beauty is apparently what causes fear in terrorists as beauty is not only universal, but can also be understood across cultural and geographical borders and across social economic categories. Extremism is, on the other hand, a representation of the ugly part of human existence.

Art is also an important tool of interaction and communication and a non-violent, non-threatening way of peoples of different cultures to showcase their roots and spread their heritage to other societies. It gives each person an opportunity to form an opinion on other peoples’ cultures without the encumbrances of biases from upbringing, indoctrination from their religions and interference of opinion from their own life experiences in general.


The conference also gave emphasis to the fact that it will be a world catastrophe if Islam continues to be associated with terrorism and extremism. Extremism of any sort, it was emphasised, is usually brought out in people who have little hope and or imagination. As a result they are unable to contribute not only to building their own nations, but also to the human condition. They instead invest time, money and life to try and erase the memory of their nations.

Unfortunately that is not enough; they also use their energy to destroy that which their fellow human beings are toiling so hard to create and bequeath to humankind, including life. And it does not stop there, they make all efforts to convince others to be part of their way of life.
When one looks at extremism in this way, tolerance becomes a possibility. One youthful joker suggested that intellectual and academic extremism are equally dangerous forms of excesses.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa