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Why ISIS’ destruction of antiquities hurts so much

The Islamic State long ago pushed beyond society’s boundaries with its shocking acts of violence and repression. In choreographed, well-documented acts clearly intended to horrify people under its control and across the world, the militant group, also known as ISIS, has produced a parade of horrors: It has enslaved Yazidi women. It has murdered hundreds of defenseless people on camera after all manner of torture. It has thrown homosexuals to their death from towers.

And yet, when the movement’s brazen fundamentalists took sledgehammers and bulldozers to the remains of the ancient Assyrian civilization in Nineveh province at the end of February, the sense of outrage and loss that they provoked was astounding. Here was a totalitarian movement that had banned everything from smoking to the teaching of biology in the sprawling, nation-sized territory under its control, and which had produced so many televised murders that close observers had become inured. So what was it about the slow-motion video of glassy-eyed fundamentalists smashing statues to the ground that elicited such a pained reaction? Why did the attack on the Mosul Museum hit such a nerve?


On the day that the footage first began to circulate of the rampage in Mosul, I was with a Lebanese journalist who has spent more than four decades absorbed in war, either living through it or covering it obsessively. She has watched countless videos of murder, torture, and combat from the Syrian war as part of her job. Despite all that, the museum’s destruction was too much for her. Not a drop of blood had been spilled, but it opened in her the floodgates of hopelessness.

“That’s it, it’s gone. When they’re done, all our culture will be gone,” she said, in tears. “If I want to see the great history of my region, I’ll have to visit a museum in London.”

Her reaction wasn’t unique. The Islamic State’s acts of cultural destruction have prompted profound grief among people who already are deeply engaged with the loss of human life: humanitarians, activists, politicians, scholars, journalists — the small community that has continued to pay attention to the conflict even when most of the world hasn’t been interested.

Over and over, I encountered hardened observers of the Middle East who admitted to breaking into tears upon learning of the Mosul Museum’s fate. Iraqi-American constitutional scholar Feisal Istrabadi choked up, unable to speak for several minutes in recalling his reaction. “Why, when we’ve seen people burnt alive, murdered in ways that you wouldn’t butcher an animal, does this resonate to much?” he said finally. “I can’t explain it.”


Why does the nihilistic effort to wipe out an ancient civilization echo so strongly? For people in the region already reeling from the epic human cost in families divided, displaced, and grieving so many murdered, the answer begins with a senseless loss of life now accentuated by a crude erasing of the historical record.

“They are killing the diversity of this region,” says Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut who has spent her career studying the ancient Assyrian civilization whose most precious artifacts and sites might have been annihilated in the last few weeks. “This is ethnic cleansing. You throw the people out, erase their history, and you can claim they were never there.”

ACCORDING TO still-emerging reports from the ancient cities of Nimrod and Hatra, members of the Islamic State group have bulldozed some of the Middle East’s most impressively preserved excavation sites, including entire temples and some of the most familiar ancient symbols, like the winged-bull statues that stand at the gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

In the video circulated at the end of February, a deadpan Islamic State member intones what he claims is the religious obligation to destroy all false idols, a museum gallery in the background. “Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey,” says the unnamed narrator of the video, which, like most ISIS propaganda offerings, is slickly produced.


Footage then shows a crew rampaging through the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers, knocking statues to the ground and pounding them into rubble, and tearing other artifacts from their wall mountings. Slow-motion replays show the artifacts shattering. The video ends with what appears to be a pair of ISIS members taking power tools to an enormous statue at the entrance to Nimrod, a sprawling ancient site outside Mosul.

This symbolic destruction goes hand in hand with a very tangible decimation of the minority communities of northern Iraq, including the Assyrian Christians who identify as direct descendants of the people who once occupied Hatra and Nimrod.

There were as many as 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic extremists began targeting Christians for kidnapping, beheading, and assassination. Hundreds of thousands fled to Syria and the West. Today, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. ISIS militants have massacred another, smaller minority, the Yazidis. Any survivors have been enslaved.

The Islamic State has openly embraced an extreme project: to establish a fundamentalist realm unlike any ever before encountered in the history of Islam. Some minorities would be permitted to live in submission, but others, specifically members of religious sects considered deviant, would be wiped out, including Shiite Muslims or mainstream Sunnis who reject the vision of the Islamic State.


“It’s a remarkable form of monotheism,” Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University who has written about conflicts over antiquities in the Arab world, said in an e-mail. “They attack any objects that people worship, be it tombs where Shiites venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since these also represent false forms of worship.”

The gleeful nature of the propaganda suggests that perhaps the Islamic State leaders know that the destruction of antiquities will provoke the kind of global outrage the organization seems to relish. Those who don’t fit — conservative Sunni tribesmen who refuse the authority of the ISIS “caliph,” smokers, alleged homosexuals, religious minorities, intellectuals — are gruesomely executed, often in videotaped ceremonies that are then widely broadcast to others.

Nuri Kino, an Assyrian now living in Sweden, founded the group A Demand for Action to call attention to the plight of minorities in Syria and Iraq. Stretching back to the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians in 1915, Kino points to an unending cycle of attacks on Christians in the Middle East. The Islamic State, in his view, has just accelerated a dismal trend.

“We are fleeing from one place to the other. We have been doing it for 100 years,” Kino said. “Yes, Muslims are, of course, also heavily affected — and killed — in the war, but there is a difference: They want to erase us, our history, people, and religion.”


NATURALLY IT’S a shock to contemplate another unfolding genocide, especially for a generation raised with the slogan “never again” and a living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, which was followed for complex reasons by the departure of most Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries.

And the loss of antiquities should pale in light of the human loss in the region. It would be easy, then, to dismiss the outpouring of concern as a kind of vanity, or worse, as inhumanity.

Countless Syrian activists have suggested as much, lamenting that some Westerners appear to care more about the smashing of a winged lion than about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. “When did we start caring about history? Now we want to carve our new history, so we forgot our old one,” said an activist in Homs reached by Skype, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Yamen because he is still fighting the Syrian regime. “I don’t understand why the whole world feels sorry for the destruction of a couple of statues and not for the people who are being killed every day.”

But that doesn’t change the pain caused by the iconoclastic destruction of Hatra, Nimrod, and the Mosul Museum collection. Nor explain it.

One theory offered by several close observers has to do with the crime of erasing history. Murder, mayhem, and terror reverberate throughout the ages, says Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, but attempts to purge a group and its memory entirely out of existence are relatively rare. Before the rash of genocides in the 20th century, he said, the next previous crime of equal magnitude might have been the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, when Hulagu Khan burnt the library, slaughtered so many people that the Tigris ran red with blood, and erected a pyramid of skulls to deter others who might resist him.

“The spectacle of destroying a 2,500-year-old statue is meant to telegraph naked power,” Khalidi said in an interview.

The Islamic State, he added, has invented an entirely new, ahistorical vision of society, misleadingly packaged as Islamic and which it is willing to go to any length to force into being.

Traditionally, conquerors in history absorb subjected populations, incorporating their architecture, culture, even some of their religious practices or deities. The Islamic State is bucking that path with its outright assault on the historical record. Murder and warfare are the organization’s central tools, but the willingness to transcend taboos respected for millennia adds another level of horror.

“They are postmodern authoritarians,” Khalidi explained. “These are people from the belly of the beast: a snuff movie, war game, YouTube, and Google beast. This is not a Middle Eastern beast.”

Then there’s also the rift between the Islamic State and the Muslims it purports to represent.

The Islamic State has undoubtedly found some support within the Sunni community, some of it from true believers and some from opportunists in Syria and Iraq who see the group as a convenient spearhead. It has taken advantage of that support to accumulate power and wealth, which it has used to trumpet a vision of a pure, monotheistic, and fiery society without any precedent Islamic history. The Prophet Mohammed shattered the pagan idols that were being worshiped in Mecca and which directly competed with his new monotheism — but the century of Islamic conquest that followed left intact the monuments and relics of other faiths. Only the 18th-century fundamentalist Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula went after symbols with similar zeal, but they weren’t operating in an area as packed with historical artifacts as northern Iraq.

There’s plenty of reason, too, for tolerant Middle Easterners to feel their identity is under assault from many directions. Sectarian militias dominate Iraq and Syria. Torrents of money from the Arabian Peninsula promote the intolerant strains of Wahhabi-inflected Salafi Islam, the progenitor of the Islamic State’s ideology. Secular and nationalist identities are in retreat, while narrow religious and sectarian ones are ascendant.

Salafi sheikhs in Egypt have suggested demolishing the pyramids and Sphinx, or covering the faces of “idolatrous” Pharaonic statues with wax, acts of iconoclasm endorsed in a 2012 fatwa. Mainstream religious scholars around the region have decried the destruction in Iraq and warn against its replication elsewhere.

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.

“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”

Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.

Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.

Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.

Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.

Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.

“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless.”

The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can delude yourself into thinking “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide.” “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back,” he continued. “There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.