SINCE its spectacular rise, the self-styled Islamic State continues to shock the world with its brutality. It has hit yet another low: its latest action has been described as cultural cleansing. The IS gangs, after vandalising Mosul Museum, started bulldozing the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud. Archaeological sites declared as world heritage are being erased in the name of religion. These relics of history had survived and were cherished by many civilisations and fiercely protected by the Iraqis for over 3,000 years.
A recent IS video showed militants with sledgehammers destroying statues and other artefacts that they described as ‘false idols’. All this destruction is being justified in terms of religion. The relics of what is commonly seen as the cradle of civilisation are now under attack by the so-called Islamic caliphate that has swept large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. The group had earlier burned many priceless manuscripts at the Mosul Central Library after the IS captured the city. The heinous crime is reminiscent of the destruction of Baghdad in the 13th century by the Mongols.
This assault on millennia of culture is part of a conscious move by the IS to erase one of the most important parts of human history. These militants, who have set a new record of savagery by carrying out public beheadings and burning alive their captives, are now trying not only to destroy the present but also the past of the territories they control.
The erasure of a major archaeological site by the IS should serve as a wakeup call.
The latest action of the IS is manifest in a dark mindset that espouses barbarism in the name of faith. It should serve as another wakeup call for the world community to act against the cancer that is spreading fast among other Muslim communities.
For religiously inspired radicals, it is justified to kill anyone not subscribing to their interpretation of Islam. The short history of Islamic State is replete with utmost savagery. Its name has become synonymous with religious and ethnic cleansing. The display of brutality is a conscious decision taken by IS leaders to terrorise the enemy and to recruit new militants. It is violence without limits and constraints.
This savagery and brutality against the ‘enemies of faith’ is not limited to the persecution of Christians, or the massacre of Shias. Even Sunni Islamist rivals are not spared. The attacks on shrines and mosques belonging to rival Sunni groups have escalated despite international outrage.
But why destroy history? The IS action can’t be comprehended fully. The answer probably lies in a twisted ideology that rejects every other aspect of human history and culture that existed before the advent of Islam or is outside the realm of their narrow interpretation of religion.
It is part of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, banning what they consider the worship of idols that goes back to 18th-century Wahabism. Everything that does not conform to what they see as the strictest Wahabi standards and anything that represents a non-obscurantist interpretation of Islam is unacceptable for the IS and its allied militant groups.
Surely the ransacking of the Mosul Museum and the destruction of the Assyrian site of Nimrud by IS in Iraq may be most outrageous, but it is not the first time we are witnessing religious fanatics attempting to obliterate historical heritage and culture.
How can one forget the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Afghan Taliban? The fifth-century sculptures — the tallest standing Buddhas in the world — had survived centuries of invasion and civil wars. But the towering statues and the world historical heritage was dynamited in 2001 after Mullah Omar decreed that all statues in Afghanistan be destroyed for contravening the Islamic injunction against false icons. The Afghan Taliban chief had described statues as ‘idols that have been the gods of infidels who worship them even now’. The real God, he said, is Allah.
Carved out of stone by Greek artists, the icons have been visited by pilgrims on the way to holy sites in India for some 1,500 years. The walls that surround the statues are covered with paintings and were themselves considered unique cultural treasures. But nothing could stop the Taliban from erasing an important part of Afghan history.
Prior to the Taliban victory the Kabul Museum was renowned for its collection of more than 6,000 pre-Islamic artefacts. But most of them were either vandalised by the radical regime or stolen and smuggled abroad. The Afghan Taliban were renowned for their shocking edicts, but nothing compares to the savagery of the IS in the name of faith.
It is not just the obliteration of artefacts and statues that is used by the Islamist zealots to destroy part of human history, there have also been attempts to revise history. One of the biggest examples of this is Pakistan itself. In the name of Islamisation our history has been revised leaving out a most important period that was deemed un-Islamic. The existence of historical revisionism has made the content of Pakistan’s official textbooks jingoistic. They lend themselves to the spread of extremism. Textbooks generally ignore the pre-Islamic history of Pakistan except to portray Hindu predecessors in a negative light.
The region that became Pakistan in 1947 has been the home of some of the oldest civilisations, but history in our school textbooks begins from the invasion of Mohammed bin Qasim. This process of historical revisionism has completely distorted our history. It teaches young minds hatred and intolerance towards other religions. Children are taught that the state was built on the basis of religion and perhaps that is why the more radicalised want to wipe out all other faiths.
It is, indeed, painful to watch armed IS militants take their sledgehammers to some of the most treasured artefacts of world heritage sites. But it is no less a crime to teach lies in our schools in the name of history. Distortion of history is also a form of destruction of history. Destruction of the past is destruction of the future.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2015