Why is Daesh destroying Mosul’s heritage?

Published March 15, 2015
A militant uses a power tool to destroy a winged bull at the museum in Mosul
A militant uses a power tool to destroy a winged bull at the museum in Mosul

Recently, the extensive list of horrors perpetrated by Daesh across Syria and Northern Iraq grew upsettingly longer. In Mosul, the largest city under Daesh control, groups of men reportedly destroyed the city’s public library with improvised explosives, torching some 10,000 books in the process, and incinerating hundreds of rare manuscripts. Shortly after, videos surfaced of men hacking away at priceless statues from the Assyrian and Akkadian eras in Mosul’s central museum, and toppling them to the ground.

It has since been suggested that many of the smashed statues were, in fact, replicas. Even if true, the malevolence of the act itself is no less appalling. And given all the other loss of priceless artefacts, not to mention the razing of Mosul’s library, the possibility that mere copies of ancient art comprised some of the total destruction offers little more than cold comfort.

Almost immediately after the video began circulating on the internet, debates about sharing these unsettling images erupted on social media. Some questioned the appropriateness of lamenting the destruction of inanimate objects while the staggering human costs of the Daesh’s occupation grow by the day. Others argued that that the dissemination of Daesh propaganda serves to empower the group further, and should therefore be avoided.

Far from shying away from these shocking acts of cultural desecration, it is imperative that we strive to understand what they represent and think through the ways in which they serve the Daesh’s political agenda.

To begin with, the wanton destruction of cultural heritage is hardly unprecedented. The annals of antiquity are littered with cases in which marauding hordes smash idols, burn libraries to the ground and otherwise attempt to extinguish any record of artistic achievement. To be sure, the modern vandal descends from the eponymous Scandinavian tribe that famously sacked Rome and set the stage for Europe’s slow slide into the Dark Ages.

“The first step to liquidating a people is to erase its memory. … Before long the nation will begin to

forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.” — Gustav Husak

The recent past has hardly been more enlightened. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in an age in which the world’s great monuments are routinely under attack. A quick survey of the recent past might include the dismantling of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India; the obliteration of historically significant bridges and monuments in Mostar, Bosnia; the Taliban’s demolition of the 2,000-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan; the looting of libraries and museums in Iraq following the American invasion in 2003; the destruction of ancient manuscripts and monuments in Timbuktu, Mali; the devastation that civil war wrought on Syria’s grand heritage sites well before the Daesh came on the scene, and so on.

Statues were destroyed on the pretext that they promote idolatry / Screen grabs from Daesh video
Statues were destroyed on the pretext that they promote idolatry / Screen grabs from Daesh video

Despite this tragically rich history of memoricide and cultural cleansing, all sorts of claims have been advanced that explain the Daesh’s behaviour as something uniquely sinister and new. Many of these arguments conveniently boil it all down to the nature of Islamic extremism, and the particularly virulent strain infecting followers of Daesh. Yet when the sacking of Mosul’s museum and library is examined more deeply, it becomes evident that Islam plays only vague role in the destruction, offering nothing more than a sort of branded packaging of its own imperial language. The Daesh’s actions are less directly about religious ideology than they are about increasing political power and consolidating it.

Reflecting on the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the Czech historian Gustav Husak once remarked to writer Milan Kundera that “The first step to liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.” We see something similar playing out across the Levant.

Sadly, Iraq has borne a disproportionate spate of bad luck when it comes to the erasure of its heritage. During the American invasion of 2003, it was widely acknowledged that troops watched nonchalantly while Baghdad’s national museum was looted. Donald Rumsfeld shook it off with “stuff happens”. But as weeks went by without any of the promised protection being provided to the now ruined museum, this nonchalance appeared more resolute and deliberate leading critics to believe that the American government was indeed invested in a kind of cultural cleansing. It was not surprising then to learn that many of these artefacts had been located within the US and UK pointing to the fact that a lot of the looting and destruction was carried out by the coalition forces themselves.

Sledgehammers were used to smash exhibits / Screen grabs from Daesh video
Sledgehammers were used to smash exhibits / Screen grabs from Daesh video

Now, over a decade later, the Daesh appears to be pursuing somewhat similar goals. Firstly, they are carrying out an ongoing imperial project across Syria and Iraq, and these are unabashed attempts to carve out a fresh narrative of power to demarcate territory and redefine it without remorse. Far from being something new, the violent erasure of historical memory has been a recurring feature of state-making efforts by occupying powers.

Second, this is a cry for attention and a craving for inclusion into larger institutional networks across the region and indeed the world. Their constant streaming of videos on social media suggests their need for the whole world’s attention and continuous engagement. The shocking subversion of Western power embedded in these acts — which are designed to be as outrageous as possible — has been key to Daesh’s recruitment and growth. Since exploding onto the scene in the past year and a half, the group has repeatedly celebrated deeds that directly challenge international order and violate the Western norms that underpin it. The Daesh’s strategy has proved wildly successful in attracting new members, and likely builds the morale of those on the ground.

It isn’t hard to understand why. Yet refusing to share or discuss the videos does nothing to combat this reality. It could, however, render things much worse.

Without properly situating the Daesh’s latest actions in Mosul, other, more destructive narratives will be allowed to take hold. Given the Daesh’s ultraviolent campaign across the Middle East, labelling them barbarians and calling for their defeat might seem entirely reasonable to some. At the same time, these sorts of reactions — born of anger, outrage and fear — are easily reduced to essentialist ideologies pitting “us” against “them” in some grand clash of civilisations that has no basis in reality.

In his analysis of the destruction of monuments and manuscripts in Timbuktu, Leopold Lambert makes a powerful point. He claims that the iconoclast, someone who is dedicated to heretical destruction of religious icons, has a lot in common with an iconodule, someone who is committed to cherishing and preserving these symbols. “Iconoclasts and iconodules are therefore part of the same “family”, Lambert writes, “They both understand the power of the icon —again, iconoclasts might even understand it more — and simply differ in their reaction to it. While the iconodules worship the artefact for what it implies, the iconoclasts, exasperated by what they fathom, crave its destruction.”

Acknowledging the purpose and power of these actions — and the forces that drive our reactions — offers hope for developing a productive alternative. By coming to grips with the complex dynamics of cultural desecration and its underlying political intent, the machinery animating the growing power of Daesh, as well as ham-fisted responses from the West and its regional allies, will be laid bare. From there, creative forms of resistance to the contending imperialisms in the conflict will be easier to fashion. Failure to confront these realities will allow for greater levels of violence, death and destruction perpetrated by all sides.

Bhakti Shringarpure is the Editor-in-Chief of Warscapes magazine, and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Twitter at @bhakti_shringa.

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine, and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Twitter at @michaelkbusch.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 15th, 2015

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