How Does ‘Matter’ Matter In International Conflict and Security? An Examination of the Importance of Mosques

How Does ‘Matter’ Matter In International Conflict and Security? An Examination of the Importance of Mosques

[Sara Elizabeth Dill is Partner at Anethum Global (London, England), a Certified Global Sanctions and Financial Crimes Specialist, and Officer with the International Bar Association’s War Crimes Committee.]

“… we saw a mosque whose dome had been split in half when its minaret had come crashing down. … seeing the destruction in person profoundly shocked me. For as long as I could remember, my life had revolved around the mosque. Sadness, anger, and indignation swirled within me.” (Dean, 2018)

Scholars theorise that when materials play a significant role in society, attacks on materials become symbolic, causing physical destruction and extreme mental, psychological, and emotional harm to the community (Coward, 2006). Coward poignantly sets forth that “[t]he target is not the buildings per se, but a perceived cultural characteristic of the lives lived in and amongst the buildings” (Coward, p.429). Thus, in international conflict, certain types of matter occupy an elevated role when examining their destruction.

This foregoing will examine the meaning and purposes of mosques, beyond mere buildings, and the positive and prominent role mosques play for the advancement of society, the individual, and the community. It will further address the enduring and multifaceted devastation resulting from the destruction of mosques in conflict, an act designed to harm a community at its deepest levels, justifying the high level of protection provided to religious sites under international law and the classification of such acts as a war crime.

In examining the destruction of mosques and the particularly devastating impact on the community, Coward’s description of the concept of shared spaces, their centrality within a society, and the role of the individual within these spaces is useful, especially how within these spaces people find purpose, grounding, and orientation in the “sea of society” via their individual relation to the shared space (Coward, p. 431-32). One author explores the particular power, or “force” that things obtain, either by their very nature or form, or due to their connection with human beings and everyday life in the shared experiences between the object and the human (Bennett, 2010).

What is A Mosque?

Mosques occupy a central role in the daily, if not hourly, life of Muslims. One of the five pillars, or obligations, of Islam, is to pray five times a day (“salah”), an action that frequently occurs at the mosque, as it is considered the closest place to Allah. The adhan, or call to prayer, echoes from the mosques to bring neighbors together for each prayer time, the minaret serving as a beacon creating audible strands that bind a community together.

Islam draws upon the religious, spiritual, physical, educational, and social aspects of a Muslim’s life, and that life is centered and grounded in the mosque (Utaberta, 2015).  Utaberta cites to multiple Islamic scholars to discuss the superior place the mosque holds for Muslims (Utaberta, p. 372). The first thing that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) did upon arriving in Medina was to build a mosque, as it is the focal point for prayer and for fulfilling the command that Muslims cooperatively work towards good and justice within their communities (Utaberta, p. 372-3).

The mosque becomes the living and breathing heart and brain of a community, a place of sanctity, of gathering, of seeking guidance from the Imam, of quiet reflection at prayer, during the holy month of Ramadan, and prior to celebrating Eid al Adha or Eid al Fitr. Mosques are places of learning and of coordinating charitable works in the community as those in need seek refuge or assistance. In some places, mosques serve as government offices, where financial or business transactions occur, but also where the Shura council administers decisions and guidance for the governance of the community. Many mosques have become unofficial museums or depositories of historical, religious and legal texts, artwork, and artifacts.

The mosque, with its unique architecture, minaret, and star and crescent serves as a connection to the past, to the history of Islam, tying together centuries of Muslims who worship around the world, something steadfast and static, connecting the individual parts of a community. Mosques are “the focal point of discourse for the political, social, cultural, and ritual life [of Muslims]” and have “critical importance … in all aspects of daily life” (Al Krenawi, 2016).

The Destruction and Desecration of Mosques in Modern Conflict

In recent decades the world witnessed extensive destruction to mosques during conflict. Da’esh destroyed the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri and its famous minaret, a significant cultural heritage site for Muslims, a tactic to deliberately destroy sites held dear by local populations to discourage them from wanting to return and rebuild their community.Syria’s population tragically suffered from the destruction of the minaret of an 11th Century mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site described as “a living sanctuary.”

As of 2015, almost all of the 436 mosques in the Central African Republic were destroyed during war.  Serbian forces in Bosnia targeted the 16th Century Al-Adza mosque, a mastery of Islamic architecture, and continued to target and destroy mosques throughout and after the conflict, a factor utilised to prove the criminal charges of genocide.

In Yemen, Houthis destroyed more than 750 mosques across Yemen or re-purposed them as military barracks for snipers, firing upon anyone who came near. Yemen’s entire population was prevented from living a normal daily life, displaced from their mosques due to the terror of sniper and missile fire on their beloved sanctuaries which became military targets.

When Azerbaijan reclaimed its territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, those joyously returning to their homeland discovered that Armenians desecrated or destroyed multiple mosques, even repurposed some mosques as stables for pigs. These acts stemmed from deeply rooted Islamophobia and hate designed to target and terrorize the religious foundation and center of the community.

Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2022, mosques were targeted during prayer times, resulting in the local population avoiding the mosque out of fear.  In China’s Xinjiang province, the epicenter of China’s genocide against Uighur Muslims, thousands of mosques have been destroyed or converted to other uses, part of China’s attempt to “re-educate” the Muslim community and remove their ability to learn, gather, and pray at the mosques.

The most volatile and ongoing conflict involving mosques is in Palestine, where Israeli forces and Jewish citizens frequently attack the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, terrorizing civilians as they gather to pray, chanting “Mohammed is dead,” and calling for the destruction of the mosque. In one such attack, timed to occur during Friday prayers, over 158 Palestinians were injured and Israelis threatened to perform animal sacrifices in the courtyard of the mosque, subjecting some to arrest, acts intended to further the atrocity crimes and apartheid committed against Palestinians.

In recent days, tensions over the Al-Aqsa mosque intensified following the change in leadership in Israel and actions that were viewed as hostile towards Palestinians and Muslims, increasing the concern that the sanctity of the mosque was at risk. In response, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem, warned Israel against any attempts to change custody or interfere with Muslims right to worship at the holy sites. In response to pleas from member states, the United Nations Security Council also stressed the need for peace and maintaining the status quo. Given the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Palestine, it is notable that so many recognize the prominent role these sites hold, and how a shift in their status or the ability of Muslims to visit and pray freely could spark a sharp increase in the level of hostilities.

Mosques are thus targeted because they are perceived to the enemy as a threat in and of themselves, and because they represent something so significant to society that their destruction is meant as a deeply symbolic and cruel act to inflict harm beyond the physical destruction of the building and rent society into irreparable pieces.

Why Do Mosques Matter in Armed Conflict?

International humanitarian law prohibits the destruction of religious and cultural heritage during armed conflict (with the caveat that are not being used for “military purposes”) (Convention II Article 27, Cultural Property Convention, Additional Protocol I). The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court further reflects the important role that buildings have in a society by making “[i]ntentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, [or] historic monuments” a war crime. Islamic law of armed conflict, recognizing the vital place that mosques occupy within a society, prohibits attacks on religious sites and makes the destruction of mosques a sin.

The destruction of a mosque, due to its purpose, significance, and role in the lives of the people, can have more significance or impact than the actual death of a human being as “heritage is… a fundamental part of the recovery of societies which have been affected by war and conflict; it is the glue that holds together such fragile and diverse communities.”  Mosques transform from buildings into a living force, as they generate relationships, an individual’s placement in society, and develop the web holding people together.  Thus, in armed conflict, the wanton, depraved and deliberate destruction of a mosque destroys the cultural heritage of a community and the routine aspects of life. Whilst artillery may shake or unsettle the foundation beneath a building, the destruction of a mosque unsettles the very core of the individual and the community.

Amidst the trauma and devastation that stems from armed conflict, one cannot ignore the impact of the destruction of the central and important gathering place, and the subsequent solitary and untethered feelings due to the elimination of this binding force. There exists also a particular harm and wrongful assumption that people can simply go back to their lives amidst the rubble and destruction of all they held dear. The psychological damage runs deeper and is longer lasting, as people walk past the rubble of the mosque in which they previously performed their daily prayers. Added to this is the lingering trauma from attacks that transform mosques from sanctuaries to danger zones. The loud silence instead of the adhan’s beautiful sound echoing through the street to bring the community together only magnifies the breadth of the loss.

Post-conflict reconciliation, rebuilding, and restorative justice cannot ignore the deep pain resulting from destruction of buildings such as mosques. Efforts at accountability and healing must take into consideration the impact on society when inanimate yet powerful and meaningful things are destroyed.

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