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Study analyses the impacts of the rebuilding of heritage destroyed by terrorist groups on tourism and communities

16 march, 2023
Jahanabad Seated Buddha, September 2007
Jahanabad Seated Buddha, September 2007
© Geo News

A research team of the University of Coimbra (UC) scrutinised the media coverage of the destruction and rebuilding of the Jahanabad Seated Buddha statue in Pakistan, destroyed by a terrorist attack in 2007, and analysed the reactions of the local community and government authorities to the process.

In its main findings, the research points out the heritage activism of the local community regarding the destruction, the importance of the restoration of the statue to maintain the economic stability of tourist industry in the Swat region - where the statue stands - as well as the increased media coverage of the destruction periods as opposed to the rebuilding phase.

The study was conducted by Farhad Nazir, researcher at the Centre of Studies on Geography and Spatial Planning (CEGOT) of the University of Coimbra and by Ana Maria Caldeira and Cláudia Seabra, professors at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the UC and researchers at CEGOT. Cláudia Seabra explains that the core goal was to “analyse the impact that the destruction of relevant heritage assets by terrorist attacks has on tourist industry”, further adding that “in the last 20 years in particular, radical groups have reshaped their operational strategy, destroying classified heritage in an attempt to erase destroy the memories and identities of civilisations while reaching global audiences”.

The researchers analysed news stories broadcast on regional (Swat), national, and international media outlets, as well as news agencies. The qualitative analysis revealed that “the media discourse continues to prefer sensationalist content about destruction over content about restoration and rehabilitation”, highlights Cláudia Seabra. According to the research team, “the most interesting result was the insight shown by local communities into the protection of their heritage, regardless of the radical and religious discourses promoted by terrorist groups, thus encouraging heritage protection campaigns”.

More specifically, in the analysis of news reports on the destruction (2007-2011), the research team found that the main information conveyed focused on "the agenda of the Pakistani State and other society members", says Prof. Seabra, in particular regarding the inaction and passiveness of the administrative authorities towards protecting the heritage asset; the bond of the local community to the statue, viewing it as part of their ancestral legacy; the destruction of this Buddha figure on the grounds that it had been undertaken in order to destroy a figure that was against the Islamic philosophy.

As for the news about the rebuilding period (2012-2016), the researchers specifically noted "the commercial benefits of this rebuilding, especially to ensure the economic stability of tourist industry in Swat. Also, heritage activism and physical and moral support of the local community was highlighted by the media", adds Cláudia Seabra.

In this context, Seabra explains that "the terrorist group responsible for the attack tried to win the sympathy of the local community by using Islamic iconoclasm (objection to the existence of religious imagery) as a religious shield to justify the attack, yet the community refuted this narrative and instead showed heritage activism by fighting for the rebuilding of the Jahanabad Seated Buddha statue."

According to Cláudia Seabra, the study of the relationship between tourism and terrorism through the analysis of media coverage “allows us to understand the way in which terrorist attacks have weakened the economic and political situation of various governments, driving people away from these sites, and marking specific countries as unsafe; as well as the way in which terrorist groups use the destruction of heritage to reach a global audience to pass on their message and claims”.

The scientific paper “Heritage tourism and terrorism: media coverage of the destruction and rebuilding of Jahanabad Seated Buddha in Pakistan” was published in the Journal of Heritage Tourism and is available at https://doi.org/10.1080/1743873X.2023.2181701.

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Original news article in Portuguese: Catarina Ribeiro

English version: Diana Taborda