Salafist Arsonists Target Tunisian Heritage Sites

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In the past eight months, a vicious campaign of arson and vandalism has hit dozens of Tunisia’s heritage sites, amid criticism of perceived government inaction, writes Inès Oueslati.

About eight months ago, the Saida Manoubia Mausoleum — an important Tunisian heritage site — was torched. This criminal and widely condemned act spread terror among residents of the region and sparked rage in an already angry civil society. Nevertheless, the crime has been repeated, to the great displeasure of Tunisians.

Why are mausoleums being targeted?

A dreadful arson campaign has been destroying Tunisian cultural heritage sites for some time now. It has taken along with it many symbols of national collective consciousness as well as architectural gems like the Sidi Bou Saïd Mausoleum, which is classified as a global heritage site by UNESCO and burned down on Jan. 12, 2013. Regardless of the type of such acts, be they are arson attempts, actual fires or acts of vandalism, the perpetrators seem to be the same — Salafists to the core.

These Salafists, whether real or fake, portray themselves as zealous defenders of the values of Islam. Yet, their attacks on mausoleums are cowardly and stand not only in opposition to the values of Islam, but also to the values of humanity.

First of all, mausoleums are sanctuaries reserved for important figures of Islamic studies: people who spent their lives serving Islam by analyzing it, transmitting its values and spreading nobility all around them.

Second, it must be noted that the attachment of Tunisians to the mausoleums of these saints, whose works were passed down from one generation to another, does not stem from pagan beliefs — contrary to what some fanatic Islamists like to say.

Mausoleums are a sort of local Restos du Coeur. They are also a means of mutual social aid, in a society that — as the price of of a certain sense of modernity — drowns some people in need, while it makes others forget the notion of giving one’s time, self, or charity. Therefore, the social-aid role is played by some mausoleums through benevolent acts of all kinds.

Thus, by an act of real attachment to the values of our own religion, it would have been better for our young zealots to use dialogue and speech to explain their theories to those who demonstrate extreme devotion to the saints of their regions.

What is the position of the civi- society sector, associations and specialized bodies regarding this issue?

This excessive violence was condemned by certain political parties and by the civil-society sector itself, in addition to several associations working in the field of heritage and Sufism. In fact, UNESCO condemned the violations committed in Saida Manoubia and Sidi Bou Said. 

“Attacking places that bear the collective memory of Tunisians and the history of Tunisia is considered a crime against the people of this country, who have always been distinguished, throughout history, for their tolerance and respect for the diversity of beliefs and practices,” declared UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in a press release issued on Oct. 21.

The National Heritage Institute also denounced the acts of vandalism and stands determined to defend these shrines. In a press release, the syndicate of the National Heritage Institute’s researchers professed that the desecration of mausoleums constitutes a “dangerous turn that threatens the cultural heritage of Tunisia.”

Additionally, the Union of Sufi Brotherhoods has denounced in the strongest terms the attacks against the Tunisian mausoleums. Mohammed Omrane, the deputy head of the union, said that 38 mausoleums have been vandalized during the last eight months. The union accused Wahabis of perpetrating the aggression, and had previously insisted several times on the need to protect these sites.

What measures has the state adopted?

Speaking about the planned attacks against the mausoleums, the Minister of Culture announced in an interview with Mosaique FM radio on Saturday, Jan. 26 that an “emergency strategy” would be put in place to add to the efforts of both his ministry and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, in order to counter these violent acts.

In an interview on the “9 Heures du Soir” program broadcast on the Ettounsiya channel on Jan. 24, a representative from the Ministry of Religious Affairs said that ensuring the security of these sites was not covered by his ministry’s remit, and that it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior.

The violation perpetrated against the Mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said has sparked reactions within the political class. The presidency denounced these criminal acts on Jan. 12, affirming that they aim destabilize the country. The presidency called on the police forces and the Ministry of Interior to exert the necessary effort to counter such violent acts and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Tunisian Minister of Interior Ali Larayedh condemned on Sunday, Jan. 23 the vandalism of the Mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said, calling on the citizens to protect these sites.

There have been 38 separate incidents of arson and vandalism, yet only five suspects have been arrested for the torching of Saida Manoubia. These are the only arrests carried out by the Ministry of Interior, an insufficient measure in the face of such aggression.

A part of our cultural heritage is destroyed and our collective memory has been lost in the flames. The emblems are destroyed, and this is the least of it; our architecture and national history have been shamelessly expunged. Meanwhile, the most influential political figures are content with simply denouncing the violent acts perpetrated against a marginalized group of people, using unconvincing expressions, unconcerned with the demise of old customs and traditions.

Will the state be able to protect itself from such violent acts that try to destabilize the country and question the power of the authorities? Apart from verbal denunciation, are politicians capable of ensuring our security and that of our common property?

Following 38 acts of vandalism within a period of eight months, the scene is cluttered with heavy numbers and serious questions.

From the torching of Sidi Bouzid to that of Sidi Bou Said, the country is being set aflame. Those in charge are content with denunciation, and the perpetrators are still at large.

Below is a list of the acts of vandalism and arson perpetrated against mausoleums, in addition to others in Skhira, Monastir, Djerba, Mahdia and Mahares.

  • Sidi El Kacem, torched in April 2012
  • Sidi Assila in Bardo, destroyed in April
  • Sidi El Mouhareb in Monastir, torched in May
  • Sidi Yacoub in Tataouine, destroyed in May
  • Sufi Mausoleum in Kairouan, destroyed in August
  • Sidi Abdallah El-Ghrivi, destroyed in August
  • Sidi Abdelkader El-Jilani in Menzel Bouzelfa, destroyed in September
  • Saida Aicha Manoubia, in Manouba, torched on Oct. 16
  • Sidi Ali Ben Salem in El Hamma, torched on Dec. 23
  • Sidi Mohamad El Gouth in Douz, torched on Dec. 24
  • Sidi Ali Hachani in Menzel Abderrahmane, torched on Jan. 1, 2013
  • Sidi Abdelaziz El Mahdi, in La Marsa (a northern suburb of Tunisia), torched on Jan. 10
  • Sidi Bou Said El Beji in Sidi Abou Said, torched on Jan. 12
  • Sidi Ouerfelli in Akouda torched on Jan. 23

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Found in: world heritage, unesco, salafist, islamist
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