The180·The 180

What the destruction of antiquities in Mali teaches us about 'offensive' public art in Canada

An Islamic radical in Mali was recently convicted for destroying ancient architecture that he viewed as an affront to Islam. Toronto writer Russell Smith says the story holds a lesson about tolerance: that even art that offends contemporary sensibilities must be preserved.
Men work alongside a historic mud mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, in this May 2012 file photo. Locals vowed to retaliate after Islamist fighters desecrated historic shrines. (Associated Press)

They were historic shrines dating back hundreds of years, and revered in the Islamic faith. 

But in 2012, Timbuktu and its famed mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque were attacked by jihadists, after the UNESCO world heritage site was condemned as idolatrous. 

Predictably, this sparked outrage in the West, and the case — the first of cultural destruction in the International Criminal Court  — prompted a global mourning of the loss of these of historical monuments.

We see them completely as the other and we seem them as completely fanatic and crazed and we don't see that their sense of indignation and hurt that their religion is being insulted…. We just think that is completely foreign and alien, but their indignation is like our indignation.- Russell Smith

Russell Smith thinks that even offensive historic art has a value. (Russell Smith)

Russell Smith argues that outrage is hypocritical because North Americans are guilty of a cultural cleansing of our own. 

And his list of examples is extensive. 

There's the ongoing controversy at Yale University. Calgary's Langevin Bridge, named after one of the founders of the residential school system, has been the topic of debate. And in Halifax, there's been a call to remove the statue of the city's founder Edward Cornwallis, who infamously called for the scalping of Mi'kmaq. 

Halifax's statue of Edward Cornwallis has been the target of vandals. (Paul Poirier/CBC )

"I don't know if you want to eliminate all traces of Halifax's colonialist past. It is a colonial centre. That is the past. It happened, one can't avoid it. So there's an argument to be made for leaving the statue where it is."

Smith, a novelist and a columnist for the Globe and Mail, says we should think critically about both the motivations of fundamentalists who destroy antiquities and the motivations of those offended by historical monuments like statues of Cornwallis. 

He says the rationale is the same: both are deemed offensive. 

"We see them completely as the other and we seem them as completely fanatic and crazed and we don't see that their sense of indignation and hurt that their religion is being insulted…. We just think that is completely foreign and alien, but their indignation is like our indignation."

Listen to the full interview by clicking the play button above.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now