Karima Bennoune: “Daesh produces destruction pornography”

It becomes clearer by the day: IS (Daesh) tries to provoke a war between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’. And they make it a cultural war. MO* talked about cultural rights and identities in times of terrorism with Karime Bennoune, UN-Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights.

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Karima Bennoune is predestined to differ with those who have monocultural or religious dogmatic dreams about the future. Having Algerian and American parents, she grew up with a constant interaction between these countries and cultures.

‘Having mixed identities is fundamentally human and much older than we would like to believe today. When one is mixed on the inside, you look at reality in different ways- and that is a real advantage’, says this professor International Law at the University of California- Davis School of Law.

In 2013 Bennoune wrote Your Fatwa Does Not Apply here. Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism. Herein, she wanted to show that there are many people around the world like her father, a professor who was a profound opponent of fundamentalism and terrorism in Algeria in the 1990’s  - despite several death threats.

Since last year, Bennoune is also a Special Rapporteur of Cultural Rights for the United Nations – a position that gave her a global public and a big responsibility. We talked to her on the margins of the conference Cultural Diversity under attack: Protecting Heritage for Peace, organized by Unesco with support of the Flemish Government and the European Union.

In your first report, the largest emphasis is on the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage. Why this emphasis?

Karima Bennoune: I was, just as many others, shocked by the images of the destruction of the Baal and Baalshamin temples at Palmyra, Syria. I was also touched by the destruction of mausolea and manuscripts at Timbuktu, Mali.

The destructions at Palmyra and Timbuktu did not happen notwithstanding the value of this heritage, but exactly because of its meaning

When I was in Mali in 2012 –not as Special Rapporteur but as an academic- people told me about the unimaginable pain, even desperation that was caused by the destruction.

The destructions at Palmyra and Timbuktu did not happen notwithstanding the value of this heritage, but exactly because of its meaning. I felt that the United Nations had to react.

Was that international reaction absent or not effective enough?

Karima Bennoune: There definitely was a reaction, and I think Unesco did a great job, for example with their #Unite4Heritage initiative.  What was missing was a systematic and coordinated response based on human rights. I thought that the world should not only react from Paris-Unesco, but also from Genève- Human Rights Council. Because it is not only about objects or “stones” as some may suggest, but about the relation between people and these objects and the impact on their right on freedom of religion, beliefs, speech… To me, the importance of cultural heritage is about living people and their human rights.

The destruction of cultural heritage is an attempt to establish political and ideological power. But maybe we have to look at the defense of heritage in the same way: is the outrage caused by geopolitical concerns, rather than by a sincere care for people’s rights on their cultural past?

Karima Bennoune:  It is important not to be selectively outraged. I am not only working on the visible destructions in Syria, Iraq and Mali, but I am also worried about the destructions in Yemen. I am very sensitive for the reaction I recently got at the 15th Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York: that nobody actually cares about native heritage, which is constantly being destroyed. That reality deserves much more attention; that is correct. 

But the fact that cultural heritage suddenly gets so much attention, is not so much a matter of geopolitics but rather one caused by general outrage. If all this attention is the only positive effect of what Daesh does, we should use this attention to raise awareness of all the other destructions.

But the question remains why Palmyra gets so much attention while the events in Yemen remain unnoticed.

Karima Bennoune: I want to highlight every second of attention Palmyra gets is fully deserved. There are only a few other examples where the target is chosen because of its symbolic significance and where the destruction is showed in a way that the world is obliged to watch, it is destruction pornography. There is no doubt about the culprits or about their motives.

There are only a few other examples where the target is chosen because of its symbolic significance and where the destruction is showed in a way that the world is obliged to watch, it is destruction pornography

The case of Yemen is much more complicated. There are a few cases of armed groups that have attacked or destroyed sites, but it is not so easy to link the warring groups to a specific destruction. A lot of the destruction happen as a side effect of war, and therefore a lot is left unseen.

But the scale of the devastation is terrible; there is no discussion about that. What really worries us is that the treaty concerning the protection of cultural heritage during conflicts from 1954 contains a restriction. The restriction operates in case of military necessity. In Yemen, this may appear to be an essential problem.

The destruction of important indigenous sites is often linked to economic interests –mining, road construction, urbanization… There might not be a clear intention to commit a cultural genocide, although the effect is as destructive.

Karima Bennoune: In a broader context, destruction because of economic development is comparable with destruction linked to ideology, indeed. But the legal framework to counter this is much less precise and is ambiguous. However, it is clear that there should be a permanent discussion and consultation with those people who have a strong connection with a site under threat.

The results of destruction could be the same as when it happens intentionally: desperation among individuals and groups, and the damage or disappearance of cultural foundations or identities. To be clear: objects, buildings or sacred places that are destroyed can never be repaired in their original state, not even in our digital era.

Who decides what is cultural heritage, and therefore deserves protection?              

Karima Bennoune: Good question. In my opinion, cultural heritage cannot be determined exclusively by people who happen to be in power now or by just looking back into the past. A place that was only recently important for the lgbt- or feminist movement, a building that explicitly supports the diversity of a city: this could all be part of a collective cultural heritage.

That leads to a lot of debate and conflict, of course. Those who want to rename a square in order to put a new community into the spotlight, clash with another group that wants to defend their own historic claims.

Karima Bennoune: This is a worldwide challenge: how to give space and how to recognize different kinds of groups if they all want to confirm their presence in certain space?

We have to learn to recognize the diversity of our past and to place it in the present community

We have to learn to recognize the diversity of our past and to place it in the present community. In order to do that, each individual and each group must have space where they can express their perceptions and to formulate their own expectations.

The previous Special Rapporteur of Cultural Rights, Farida Shaheed, once stated that a conflict itself is not a problem if we can deal with it in a constructive manner. Therefore we need the irrefutable, firm framework of human rights. But that framework becomes contested by all kinds of extremists today.

You frequently use the term groups and never communities. Are there no collective identities?

Karima Bennoune: ‘Community’ is a vague word. It is used at certain points in the agreements concerning human rights, but only as a reference to the inhabitants of a whole nation. But I have not found a clear definition of ‘community’ anywhere in this literature about human rights.

Amartya Sen has defined this problem very clearly by stating that a superficial emphasis on communities can lead to multiple monocultures instead of real multiculturalism

The positive use of ‘community’ relates to the fact that people share common views, interests, identities and human rights. But the term can also have a negative meaning. This means that ‘community’ can be used for subgroups in society who are separated from the others, with ethics and a hierarchy that everyone can accept.

However, in reality, each individual can belong to several groups or can shift their priority identity from time to time. Individuals might not feel represented by those who act as leaders of their ‘community’.

Amartya Sen has defined this problem very clearly by stating that a superficial emphasis on communities can lead to multiple monocultures instead of real multiculturalism. That is why I do not like to use such a loaded term, although I respect those for whom community is a significant reality.

In Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, which appeared in 2013 before you became Special Rapporteur, you focus on dissent within Islam. The message appears to be: everyone has to be able to decide for their own how he or she experiences faith, how to express it and how to theologize it.

Karima Bennoune: It is true that I wanted to ask attention for diversity within Islam and within the group of people with an Islamic background. The diversity within Islam is as big as within other cultural or religious traditions. There are believers and sceptics, non-believers and agnostics, believers for whom a national identity is more important than a religious one,…

Many people and groups perceive diversity not as a source of opportunity and innovation, but as a source of fear, conflict and violence. This vision is present among all extremes of the social debate, both among Salafists and Eurocentric nationalists.

Karima Bennoune: That is a very important conclusion, indeed. In my first report as Special Rapporteur, I emphasized the difficulty I have with opinions where whole religions or groups are dismissed. Pluralism and diversity are attacked by those who deny the differences but also by those who inflate these differences until they become an impassible wall between people.

Universality of human rights and human diversity are not incompatible

To me, universality of human rights and human diversity are not incompatible. They are necessary and complimentary elements of a single reality. We do not need cultural relativism, neither discrimination nor violence against minorities, women or other groups. We cannot bend for any kind of fundamentalism: religious, nationalistic, anti-migration or anti-diversity.

Everyone has to fight intolerance, but should everyone do this at the same pace and with the same arguments? The fight for women- and gay rights are sometimes used by people who do not apply these rights to include minorities, but to exclude other minority groups.

Karima Bennoune: Every battle for human rights can become an instrument, of course. That is why it is so important to fight for human rights in a universal manner, because this Universal Declaration does not fit any small political agenda.

Translation: Stephanie Cousin.

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