Amplified humanity and the architectural criminal

Lucia Allais

Over the past twelve months, two international initiatives have been closely watched because they appear to set the terms for a new, globally punishable, architectural criminality. The Italian-Jordanian initiative Protecting Cultural Heritage: An imperative for humanity mobilized the UN, Interpol, and UNESCO to stem the looting and smuggling of antiquities out of war-torn Syria by demonstrating that their traffic “finances terrorism” and is “linked to international crime.” At the same time, the International Criminal Court of the Hague tried and indicted Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a Malian citizen who orchestrated the destruction of ten mausoleums and mosques in Timbuktu on behalf of Ansar Dine (an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magrheb, AQIM) in the broadest-ever judicial ruling that architectural destruction is punishable as a war crime.

These two projects promise to bridge two notions, “heritage” and “humanity,” that have been separated in international law for at least a hundred years. Legally, the bifurcation can be traced to the aftermath of World War II. Since the 1954 Hague Convention, heritage laws have protected architecture as a kind of collective property, whereas texts such as the 1948 Human Rights Declaration codified humanity as an attribute of individual personhood. Any reference to cultural heritage was deliberately excluded from the 1948 Genocide Convention, signed that same year.

But historically, the split predates these laws. World War I was the first conflict where modern nation-states competed and collaborated to protect their art and architecture. In fact, these protective measures were so well-publicized that after 1918 Europe’s cultural elite became consumed with debates about whether armies had been more concerned with their art than with their citizens. Fearing that humans and things might have to compete for protection in future wars, international lawyers found themselves split for much of the twentieth century in an apparent opposition: advocate either for culture or for human rights.

Fast-forward to September 2016. The ICC’s judgment against Al Mahdi explicitly seeks to move past this split legacy. “Crimes against property are generally of less gravity than crimes against persons,” states the ICC Chamber, but this particular attack was “heightened by the fact that it was relayed in the media”—that is, it was amplified by its consequences for the international community.

So if protecting heritage has become an “imperative for humanity,” it is by undermining the early-modern and Enlightenment definition of the human as distinct both from things that are less than human (such as barbarians, animals, or inanimate objects) and also those that are more than human (such as gods). At the ICC trial, the religious aspects of destruction took a notable back seat, while its technical and material logistics, and the nature of Timbuktu’s mosques and mausoleums as “living” heritage, were emphasized.

To be sure, tensions lie just beneath the surface of the apparent consensus that the Al Mahdi case is ground-breaking. Critics point out that Al Mahdi’s confession and cooperation with the court means that the case sets no new evidentiary standards. Human rights advocates worry that a victory in punishing violence against buildings might obscure crimes against persons, including the widespread sexual violence committed by the very same group, during the very same period and in the same urban spaces of Timbuktu. The Malian association for Human Rights and Amnesty International have both called for “an expansion of the charges” against Al Mahdi. The stakes of punishing architectural destruction are therefore clear: is it a proxy for exposing more pervasive but more invisible human rights abuses, ones whose victims are chosen for their collective identity but targeted as individuals, living in a city under siege.

If the relationship between heritage and humanity has been reconfigured from an opposition to one of proximity, what are the architectural terms of this proximity? What are the operations through which the “expansion,” or “widening” of crime and punishment alike are imagined? In this essay I probe these questions in two parts. First, the accused’s discourse, in court and in abundant video evidence, provides an entry point into the logic of sincerity that motivated the design of the destruction of Timbuktu. Second, an analysis of the practices that authenticate Timbuktu as an international treasure—both in court and in ongoing preservation—reveal the techniques of amplification that are embedded into the built environment to hold together an agreement, on both sides of the law, that the target of this new criminality is humanity itself.

Life on the architectural surface
Heritage and humanity are becoming proximate notions under the sign of a dialogue, or negative mirroring, between the ideologies of Western humanitarianism and global jihad. In his remarkable book The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, historian Faisal Devji shows the confounding parallels between the structure and functioning of these two movements: both operate through widely distributed networks whose end-game is non-governmental, who claim to occupy a privileged place of morality, and who recruit young and idealistic individuals “in search of humanity.”
Devji’s work is informed by Hannah Arendt’s 1957 definition of humanity as produced through “negative solidarity, based on the fear or global destruction.” Arendt proclaimed that humanity had “become an urgent reality,” but one realized only in the face of the possibility for total extinction. Devji argues that something resembling this negative solidarity animates the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda for whom the “globe” (al-alam) can be unified only at the moment when it is left behind. To be sure, there is a difference in the two sides of Devji’s comparison: the search for empathy leads humanitarian workers to seek out sites of bare life, whereas the jihadist’s path culminates in sacrificial suicide. But two of Devji’s lessons are clear: first, assuming that Western humanitarianism is modern and secular while the Islamic militant project is fundamentalist and anti-modern only obscures the analysis of both, and second, destruction plays a crucial role in humanity’s coalescence.

Because Devji relies on Arendt, he already offers us a way of thinking of humanity and heritage laws as historically proximate. If a new humanity coalesced in the face of mid-century mass-murder, so too was the notion of international heritage worked out in response to massive scenarios of destruction during the tumultuous decades before its codification in the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

Furthermore, Devji has updated his analysis to encompass the rise of the Islamic State, describing how, against the commonly assumed rift between modern superficiality and traditionalist depth, IS recruits are asked to live what he calls “a life on the surface.” “Efforts to explain terrorism tend to be structured as efforts to plumb the movement’s depth,” he writes, but in fact most recruits obey “banal forms of reasoning” that explicitly mirror the actions of the West, to expose its insincerity. Thus “it is not the content of the West’s actions that is put in question” by militant rhetoric, “but simply its hypocrisy.”

Devji invites us to read destruction looking for the “logic of equivalence that marks militancy.” For Al Qaeda, he cites Vyjayanthi Rao’s reading of the Mumbai bombing as an infrastructural counterpart to the smart bombs of the West. For ISIS, he diagnoses a “hatred of all historical, sociological and ideological depth” as motivating the architectural destruction “of pre-Islamic monuments, [and] also of all ‘traditional,’ ‘heretical’ or ‘infidel’ sites.”

Returning to the case of Timbuktu, then, we find destruction that both echoes Al Qaeda’s concerns for global belonging, and constitutes an early example—an experiment, really—of the attacks on funerary structures that the Islamic State would later make systematic, beginning with the invasion of Mosul. In Timbuktu, Al Mahdi leveraged both the infrastructural, networked nature of the city, and its nature as a historical root. Additionally, I would like to argue, the attack on the mausoleums and mosques was motivated by an almost superficial reflectivity, a ghostly mirror of the profundity that is assumed to be granted by the West to these locally-revered objects.

Consider, first, the carefully-timed game of retaliation that motivated the destruction. Ansar Dine monitored the activities of local inhabitants at ten mosques and mausolea for several months, but only ordered their destruction after they were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of heritage under threat in June 2012. In October, the group re-started destruction on the eve of an international meeting in Bamako, and in December, it was in response to a UN security resolution to send an occupying force to northern Mali that further “hidden mausoleums in the city” were found and attacked. In interviews with the Western press, Ansar Dine spokesperson Sanda Ould Boumama performed this mirroring, asking, “We are Muslims; what is UNESCO?” and continuing, as if to question the moral authority of the West’s cult of monuments, “For us, their indignation is an atonement.”

Next, consider Al Mahdi himself. A religiously educated member of a Touareg family, he was a teacher of literary Arabic and a schoolmaster by the time he was recruited into Ansar Dine in April 2012, when he took the name Abu Turab and began travelling as an acolyte of Abu Zadine. When the group returned to Timbuktu to occupy the city, Al Mahdi was enlisted to act as local mediator and, given a choice of positions, became the chief of the “morality police,” al-Hesbah. Video footage from this period (captured by a rare embedded journalist) shows him to be living exactly the kind of life on the surface described by Devji: going from his day job teaching Arabic to a child, to donning a special “vice police” jacket on top of his clothes before he sets off on vice patrol. This squad is in charge not of beliefs but of mores; not of the content of the Koran but of its respect; not of the rules but of the sincerity with which they are followed.

Following Al Mahdi on his routine as a morality policeman, the camera catches him alternately conducting online research on Koranic law in a session of the local Islamic court, patrolling the streets with Kalshnikov and megaphone in hand, inflicting the first three of a hundred lashes to an adulterous couple in the public square, assisting in the assassination of one of Ansar Dine’s own and leading a group of men in the destruction, by pick-axe, of a number of buildings.

The architectural destruction fits seamlessly into the joint policing of local morality and global sincerity. “We have destroyed these cemeteries as a preventative measure,” Al Mahdi explains at one point, “in order to make sure the people don’t use them as idols.” In fact, Al Mahdi is not originally convinced that the mausolea need destroying. But when he is finally pressured to write a radio sermon calling for their destruction, he finds a Koranic verse forbidding any construction higher than an inch on top of a tomb.

What ensues is a two-week performance of regulating architectural volumes and surfaces through destruction. At stake is the superficiality of the Western notion of heritage “protection,” to which Ansar Dine counter-proposes that it is the globe and its surface that should be the true object of protection, and not have objects built upon it. Thus tombs are sinful protuberations and their razing “brings protection of Sharia of the unicity of God.” Destroying buildings creates a place “upon which the law of Allah can now be applied.” Al Mahdi vows to “remove everything that doesn’t belong on the landscape,” as if to prime the surface of the earth for a guest. Thinness and superstition are also conflated when the mob arrives at one of Timbuktu’s revered monuments—a sacred door. “There was a legend that if you opened this door it would be the end of the world. We are charged with fighting superstition. This is why we decided to fix the construction of the door.” Exposing superficiality, Al Mahdi helps rip out the door by hand to expose a bricked-up, solid wall.

One of the more remarkable allocutions of Al Mahdi’s destructive rationale comes retroactively, in court, when the presiding judge inquires about the sincerity of his remorse and asks whether he has had to renounce his religious belief to plead guilty. Instead, Al Mahdi notes that this is not his first, but his second change of heart, thereby assuring the court that he had simply learned to live with “the contradiction that the mausoleums represented.” To be sure, this represents a betrayal of Al Qaeda’s sacrificial quest, but it also retroactively confirms that this sacrifice was originally demanded in the name not of a historically-grounded tradition but rather to publicize (and destroy) modern hypocrisy.

In court, Al Mahdi himself takes on qualities of an architectural mediator. He is tried not only as the “author” of destruction but as a “media spokesperson,” for his design of a sequence for the destruction. He is charged with “heightening the suffering” of Timbuktu’s population by allowing “armed groups to reach and thus to victimize a broader audience.” His choice of destruction techniques (instead of a bulldozer he purchases pick axes, which distribute the destructive tasks) also confers mediatic properties to his mob: they transmit ideology through their actions.

But if AQIM relies on Al Mahdi as a local connector for implanting itself in Timbuktu, the ICC equally requires him to use his own personhood to depict an expanded field of applicability for international law. The same qualities that Al Mahdi offered to the terrorist network are fully exploited by the ICC: he is a person who can “expand” his identity and belonging concentrically. This is particularly evident in the way Al Mahdi structures his guilty plea, in a statement that repeats atonement in a scalar progression from local brotherhood, to national citizenship, to global humanity:

I am sorry. I am really remorseful and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused to my family. And to my brothers in Timbuktu. And to my home country, the nation of Mali, in general. And to the whole of humanity around the world. (al bashariyyati jamaa fi anha’ al alam)

When Al Mahdi uses the word “humanity,” he evokes a ribbon of persons across the globe. But the French and English translations (both in court and in official transcripts) replace this with “international community,” taking advantage of the discursive structure that is shared between humanitarian activism and Islamic jihad. Indeed, even if Al Mahdi’s language is far more colorful than its translations, it conveys a struggle with superficiality. He speaks of being “swept up” in an “intense whirlwind,” but argues that despite this destructive force the “deep historical roots (al jothoor al amiqa) of the city of Timbuktu and its inhabitants” cannot be erased. The court translators substitute “root” with “heritage,” and “whirlwind” with “evil wave … of deviant people.” But these substitutions are altogether seamless, because Al Mahdi is one of the few people who can make these linguistic substitutions possible. From an anonymous official, he becomes throughout the trial a crucial operand, who can perform the scalar shift from personal brotherhood to global humanity that is consistent both with the imagined territory of humanitarian law and with the global surface of jihad.

What, then, about heritage practices that were called upon to remediate Al Mahdi’s cultural vandalism? Devji’s concept of “life on the surface” helps to locate the criminalization of architectural destruction within humanitarianism as a privileged vector of moral sincerity in the West, as well as within terrorism and its publicity goals. What is the relationship between this dynamic and the international preservation community, with its well-known preoccupation with integrity and authenticity? Here too the answer lies less in the symbolic weight of Timbuktu’s architecture than in the technologies of protection that have been used to manage its decay, its destruction, and now its reconstruction.

When old ontologies were new
Two conceptions of heritage were brought to trial in the Hague. The first associates architectural objects with depth and fundament. It offers a vision of heritage as local, situated, and connects the architecture of the buildings to the earth itself. The prosecutor in Al Mahdi’s case, Fatou Bensouda, adopted this view in her opening statement. She invoked the “deep connection between the mausoleums and the inhabitants,” called the destroyed buildings “roots of an entire people” and “important foundational blocks” for the city’s life and recalled their “inherent” or “intrinsic value” which “once destroyed, restoration can never bring back.” For her, Timbuktu was targeted as an emblem of cultural diversity, a union of human and material tolerance that was dissolved as soon as “authentic materials [were] destroyed.” She further functionalized this architectural ontology in her legal argument, by resorting to the doctrine of military objective (which objectifies the built environment by classifying all buildings as either civilian or military.)

This argument is entirely in keeping with prevalent international preservation theories that the gap between heritage and humanity can only ever be bridged by a deep essentialism of place. “In order to maintain its authenticity and truthfulness,” Jukka Jokilehto writes, “space must be alive.” Any local community “produces” space through dwelling, and therefore all spatial history (“inheritances,” in this language) is necessarily local, while any contact with a “globalizing world society” provokes an uprooting. What is lost in destruction, therefore, is architecture’s inherent sincerity.

But the material continuities that apparently authenticate these historical lineages are hard to trace. Thus a second view of heritage extends a testimonial power to buildings and affords more room for historical and material ruptures. Here, Bensouda appealed to the continued “memory” of these buildings in several generations, as “living testimony to Timbuktu’s glorious past… a unique testament to the city’s urban settlements.” One step removed from ontological dwelling, this chain of communication proceeds through history witness by witness.

In fact, Bensouda also speaks of the mausoleums as media of amplification, and of herself as a transmitter. “It is the voice of the mausoleums, of monuments, which ring out like a bell through my voice … a voice that brings with it echoes for its audience, of hatred or violence or anger.” Bensouda—who has been applauded for her willingness to leverage the “symbolic power” of the ICC—repeats this amplification in her concluding statement giving weight to the judge’s ruling in a scalar concentricity. “Your judgment is awaited from the ancient streets of Timbuktu and throughout Mali to all four corners of the world.”

It is this media-enabled, amplified humanity (and not a fundamentalist architectural essence) that the judge ultimately designates as the victim of Al Mahdi’s crime. In the final judgment, the court refuses to accept either the “religious nature” or the “high-profile quality” of the attack as an “aggravating circumstance.” Instead, the “far-reaching nature” of the crime is essential to the fact it is aimed at “multiple victims.” The gravity of the crime is measured spatially but indirectly, with the idea that international humanity is an mediated, amplified multiple of the local inhabitant.

How did the heritage experts who helped rebuild Timbuktu beginning in 2013 take up this challenge of reconciling essentialism and mediality? It was not in fact difficult. Their task was facilitated by pre-existing efforts to bring techno-scientific building practices to bear on a primarily artisanal building tradition. Consider a Manual for the conservation of Timbuktu, published in 2014 to herald the cultural rebirth of the city, but based on research conducted by Italian architects and archaeologists between 2002 and 2006 to protect the city from climate change. The manual depicts the city as a natural product of the “constructive culture of earth.” Yet the conservation techniques prescribed in this manual are almost exclusively drainage practices that control the external surfaces of the city’s vernacular construction. One section through a typical city street shows a Touareg scale figure surrounded by meticulously layered, paving and walls. Another shows how to protect the joint between earth and building from water infiltration. Another embeds toilet plumbing inside banco walls. From the care given to these technical images, a casual reader of this manual would be forgiven for thinking that the world-heritage status of Timbuktu pertains only to the thinnest of its outer layers.

But international expertise is concentrated on these surface details for good reason: because the more tectonic aspects of building are delegated to a local community of masons who have for generations, we are told, conserved the city through embodied building know-how. They use earth to make either rounded or rectangular earth bricks; they also re-plaster outer walls periodically by hand using sand and water. The material link between these masons and the “earth” out of which they build their architecture is a human, trans-generation apprenticeship, itself designated as intangible heritage under threat.

Implicitly, then, the reasons for this ecological intervention in Timbuktu’s architecture are aesthetic: together climate change and declining know-how have conspired to undermine the objecthood and legibility of Timbuktu. Increased rains mean that water stagnates in the cityscape, and earthen walls are not able to dry through natural evaporation, especially as sand piles surrounding outer walls give water a place to collect and walls rot from within. Masons have responded to the increasing frailty of their architecture by using hybrid building techniques, such as using adding cement to adobe, CMUs and banco bricks, or shoring up failing walls with banco buttresses that jut out into streets. These new practices create an increasingly pile-ridden, formless, ill-defined urban streetscape. In other words, the guardians of World Heritage find themselves policing Timbuktu’s masons by constraining their work so that it may only result in sharply outlined, monolithic, objects.

All of these aspects of the thick-thin theory of Timbuktese earthen architecture have made their reappearance in the UNESCO-sponsored reconstruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, but the contradiction between depth and surface has now been reconfigured. While ecological disaster seemed to call forth nostalgia for a disappearing tradition, the threat of terrorist destruction makes architecture a medium for the transmitting of a newly construed humanity. In the ICC trial the masons appear as “living human treasures” and, by publishing this manual in 2014, UNESCO makes clear that the goal of reconstruction is in part to give them something to build. Through its reconstruction, Timbuktu is now defined as the medial support for the transmission of know-how, not the other way around.
After all, Al Mahdi had intervened in the city’s medial landscape with his megaphone and his laptop as much as with his pick-axe and his Kalashnikov. The contest for defining the global “human” continues now, as international institutions continue to publicize their involvement in Timbuktu, keeping its architecture alive by circulating it on networks of communication.

After the destruction and reconstruction of its mausoleums, Timbuktu’s architectural history becomes a media archaeology, one which may help get past the pitfalls of colonialist histories. After all, the inaugural definition of Timbuktu as a place of protuberations was colonial. Robert Caillié’s famous engraving of the “city of 333 saints,” still reproduced in heritage manuals today, saw religious diversification literally materialized in a proliferation of buildings. Now, instead, the original context in which Timbuktu will take its architectural significance is that of a network of pilgrimage, commerce, and tourism both real and virtual. In the words of the court, Timbuktu was the “protective heart” of Mali’s heritage because it has been a focal point of cultural mobility since the middle ages. And with protection now understood to be the original function of Timbuktu’s destroyed mausoleums, their reconstruction can be seamlessly integrated to their history.

Timbuktu’s architectural history as a protective shield has not been interrupted by the destructions of 2012; rather it has been increasingly materialized. The city was already mediatized when technologies of communication were embedded in its urban architecture and its landmarks. In the 1990s, the Djingareiber Mosque was wired and loudspeakers were lodged among its dome’s distinctive wooden stakes. Between 2002 and 2006, Timbuktu’s urban fabric was surveyed through plans that encircled buildings with markers signifying the positions of photographers. After their destruction, the rebuilt mausoleums have been inventoried not through simple photography but with data-rich photogrammetric scans, with a ghostly scale figure digitally added in. UNESCO hopes that reconstruction will reclaim the warscape the city had become under Ansar Dine, through new acts of medial-architectural presencing. For example, when masons climb atop mosque towers during their yearly “ritual maintenance event” and pose for a publicity shot, the architectural festival itself is not new, but it is has now become a performance of retracing, reproduction, that takes place on the very surface of what colonial visitors called “a noble pile.” Photographic surveying and participatory masonry have created a new standard for authenticity, where geometric exactitude recedes and live approximation triumphs.

The lure of evidence
From a place for the multiplication of saints, Timbuktu has become the site for an amplification of humanity. It is undoubtedly this power of amplification that prosecutors and activists are hoping to avail themselves today to activate the proximity of heritage and humanity. When heritage advocates argue, after Raphael Lemkin, that cultural destruction tends to precede human violence; that vandalism must be prosecuted to “signal” that no other violence will be tolerated—it is because violence against heritage and humanity circulate by the same means. But even when it occurs in the same place, the broadening of heritage into humanity is mediated. This is why architectural forensics is an urgent issue, and its practitioners are keenly attuned to the evolution of new media.
Yet when architectural evidence is brought to the Hague, the argument that heritage and humanity are united by collective identity, by dignity cemented through dwelling, is not sufficient. The architects’ cameras that penetrated Timbuktu’s interiors in the 2000s to survey its urban fabric, could not produce evidence of the sexual crimes that those same walls may have witnessed in 2012. On today’s international stage, any ontology will be tested against an evolving definition of humanity as fueled by “negative solidarity.” The architectural criminal mirrors the morality claims of the humanitarian, including those of her evidentiary regimes. After all, when the Court attempted to penetrate Al Mahdi’s internal life, he performed an outward extension of personhood instead.