Islamic State’s war on cultural heritage

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Over the last few weeks, ever more shocking evidence has emerged of the systematic destruction of ancient Assyrian culture by Islamic State. Online footage appears to show militants smashing statues from the Mosul museum in Iraq, and a Winged Bull, believed to have stood at the gates of Nineveh in the 7th century BC, being defaced with a power drill. There are even indications that the ruins of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been bulldozed.

The international community was quick to respond, with the UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova denouncing Islamic State’s actions as a “war crime” and an “attack against the Iraqi people”. But media coverage has been fairly negligible. The destruction of a museum does not compare with the public burnings of prisoners of war, or executions of hostages, in terms of ‘shock factor’ or even public interest. Nevertheless, IS’s campaign against culture is a calculated and ruthless attempt to erase an entire people’s cultural identity. It is a threat not just to Iraq’s history but to the world’s, and one that the world cannot afford to gloss over. 

This form of cultural warfare is as ancient as the artefacts which are its current victims. When the Medes and the Persians sacked Nineveh in the 7th century BC, the city, and others like it, were subjected to a cultural whitewash. Temples, statues and other religious sites were pulled down and obliterated. More recently, the Bosnian War between 1992-95 saw the organised destruction of Muslim cultural heritage sites as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted mainly by Bosnian Serbs. In 2001 the Taliban infamously used dynamite to blow up the two largest standing statues of Buddha in the world. They were almost 1500 years old.

By destroying a nation’s past, you gain control over its future. By eliminating everything that a people’s identity is founded upon, you can wipe the slate clean and mould a new ideology and cultural identity shaped by ideas that you want to engrain. All a people have left is what you permit them to have.

It’s difficult to change a people’s beliefs. Islamic State know this, and have frequently made clear that their members are prepared to die for their warped ideological cause. But once the cornerstones of a people’s belief are taken away, the physical manifestations of faith and identity savagely annihilated before their eyes, then it becomes harder for them to cling to what once seemed a thing of great pride and power. IS want to create a people with no memory of their own history, and with a future that has been engineered for them.

When the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1944, it had a slightly broader meaning than it has come to acquire. Genoice, according to Lemkin, is “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups”. The objectives of genocide were, he argued, “The disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion etc.”

IS’s attack on culture is a form of genocide; the systematic erasure of not just national, but also world history. It is important to remember that much of the West considers its earliest roots to lie in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. IS is undoubtedly targeting the West as well as the Middle East with its callous campaign. If, as the militants in the video claim, the destruction is a form of iconoclasm, then what need is there to publish the videos online? It is as much a part of the group’s ‘shock factor’ tactics as the horrific executions that have appeared on its propaganda web pages over the past year.

So what can be done to prevent such a crime? Mosul, Nimrud and other ancient sites lie deep in IS-controlled territory. It also doesn’t help that Iraq did not sign the 1998 Rome Statute, meaning that it cannot refer the destruction to the International Criminal Court. But then IS has shown itself to be in utter contempt of international law. It is hopelessly naïve to think that such a referral would do anything to change its attitude. Perhaps international cooperation could help to trace the black-market sale of antiques, which provides a major source of income for the group, but this would do nothing to prevent the eradication of ancient sites and artefacts like the Winged Bull.

Ultimately, of course, these magnificent artefacts will only be truly safe when stability returns to the region, which may, unfortunately, take quite some time. In their wanton destruction of Assyrian culture, Islamic State have shown an almost inhuman lack of respect for the past and for the people to whom that culture belongs. Not to be in awe of these incredible works defies human instinct; to actively seek to destroy them is nothing short of barbaric.

We should mourn the loss of these great monuments, and remember the past that they represented. It is vital that, at the very least, we remember them, and that IS’s attempt to eradicate all memory of past cultures is not allowed to succeed.  

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