Politicised Tourism: What You Need to Know Before You Book a Tour to the Holy Land

Mourning at Jesus' grave

 

Mourning at Jesus' grave

Mourning at “Jesus’ grave”, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem). Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout -

 

 

The last time I visited Israel, and in particular the various religious sites throughout the country, I was once again struck by the vast number of organised group tours. Groups of people, singing religious songs, publicly reading from the Bible while sailing in small boats on the sea of Galilea – an area where Jesus is said to have spent a significant period of his life – are by no means an exception. Tourists who are exploring the country individually, either by car or public transport, have become a minority. Christians from all over the world organise themselves and follow a carefully planned out 10-day journey through the country, visiting the places referred to in the Bible.* Interestingly, the practical organisation of these kind of tours are in the hands of locals and the choice of sites depends on whether the group decides to take a Christian Zionist tour or a tour in support of Palestinian Christians. This article will outline the difference between these tours and argue that, 1) despite the seeming innocent nature of ‘Holy Land tourism’, organised tours are in fact highly politicised and, 2) that the confrontation between the tour guide and his/her Christian ‘clients’, although an interesting inter-religious encounter at first sight, also raises problems.**

 

One should realise that to many pilgrims, a visit to Israel is not the same as a summer holiday to Greece. The majority of Christians visit the Holy Land of Israel / Palestine as part of the experience and education of the Christian self. Christians cannot get closer to the ‘reality’ of the holy Bible than when they set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, where supposedly Jesus was crucified, or when they walk on the Via Dolorosa where Jesus is said to have carried the cross to the place of execution at Golgotha.*** Sitting on the rooftop terrace at the “Austrian hospice” in the center of the Old City, I was able to closely watch how people in groups of 20-30 walked the same path Jesus had done before he was crucified (see video below). These walks on the Via Dolorosa, with people alternately carrying the cross of Jesus – in doing so ‘reliving’ a fraction of his experience – are carefully organised. Every ten minutes a new group begins with this ‘last trail of Jesus’, halting at various stations of importance (14 in total). Every thirty minutes, Israeli buses bring these crosses back to the ‘starting point’ again, after which a whole new set of groups can commence with the same ritual. 

 

As said, the choice of tour through the land entirely predetermines the perspective these Christian groups get of the country. When you decide to participate in the Zionist Christian tour, the group visits the typically Jewish sites of Jerusalem and the country. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Christian tour centralises the Palestinian perspective and largely ignores the Jewish/Israeli element. The difference is highlighted in the make-up of the brochures. Whereas the former often shows the Western Wall in the Old City and emphasises the search for the Jewish roots of Christianity during the tour, the latter shows the Dome of the Rock (see previous article) and emphasises the Christian presence in the city, showing churches rather than paying attention to the Jewish history of the city. A closer analysis of two crucial days of the program of these two tours also shows a significant difference. Whereas the Christian Zionist tour visits the particular Jewish sites in the Holy City, passes Bethlehem (a Palestinian village and ‘birthplace’ of Jesus) and drives directly to Hebron – one of the major settlements in the West Bank – to have a festive evening with the local Jews there, the latter tour actually visits Bethlehem. Also, the choice to show the separation wall at its most problematic point (between two Palestinian villages that are entirely disrupted as a result of the wall) in the latter day-tour is telling. As a result, the tours become highly politicised. The choice of places to visit by these tour operators is crucial to the understanding and perspective of the Christian visitors on the history of the land. Also, their understanding of the nature and continuity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is moulded. This is by no means a shock or surprise to the people attending the tour – they consciously choose one of the options with a reason, and are simply strengthened in their religious beliefs throughout their visit. Consequently, their political convictions are played upon as well. 

 

The inter-religious encounters between Jewish/Israeli immigrant guides and Christian pilgrims can become an additional complex and problematic factor. The personal story of Jackie Feldman, who worked for years as a tour-guide (for which a successful completion of a two-year course is obligatory) in Israel, is telling. Feldman was a recent American immigrant in Israel and by the time he started working as a guide, he had been disappointed with his arrival in his ‘homeland’ Israel. Raised in a traditional Jewish family in New York, he believed living in Israel would feel as ‘coming home’. By contrast, he was treated as any other immigrant and the difficult bureaucratic procedures made him feel less welcome than he had anticipated. However, during the tours, in which he mainly guided American Christians, he was the representative – or ‘ambassador’ – of Israeli Jews. Through these encounters, he felt more Jewish-Israeli than ever. As more than half of the tour guides are (recent) immigrants to Israel, the interactions with the Christian tourist groups can reaffirm and even strengthen their particular identity as Jewish inhabitant of Israel, while they in reality still struggle to find a place in Israeli society. In short, these interactions inform who they are and alter their identity. Many of the tour guides have come from countries where Jews are only a minority group, opposed to the majority group of Catholics/Christians who are now visiting and guided through ‘their’ land.

 

The resulting constellation of power is seemingly harmless. There is a spirit of harmony and softening between the Jewish tour guides and the Zionist Christians who, as turns out during the 10-day tour, share a similar background. Their religions are more closely connected than anticipated. At the same time, a shared claim against Muslims/Palestinians (in cases of antagonism, often referred to as being one) starts to unfold during this process. In fact, during these Christian Zionist tours, the Palestinian story is ignored through the particular choice of sites and the strong connection between the Jewish guide and Christian pilgrims. A Jewish/Christian commonality comes into existence and is created at the cost of the Palestinians. The same is done the other way around, where tours emphasise the Palestine side of the story. This creates a problematic situation in which the antagonisms between the two groups increases. Of course, the picture is not entirely black and white. There are tours aiming to show both sides of the Old city, paying attention to both the Jewish and Muslim historical roots to the land. As a result, these tours also pay attention to the many nuances of the current conflict. However, the number of these type of tours are small. My recent visit to the country and its many religious sites confronted me more than ever with the politicisation that is inherent to the organised group tours. Although innocent on the surface, ‘Holy Land tourism’ in this form therefore only increases the already immensely complicated situation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 

 

* Mostly, these tours have a duration of 8-15 days.

** This article is based on personal interactions when visiting Israel at various periods of time over the past years as well as the work of Jackie Feldman and his lecture at Spui 25 on October, 12 2017.

*** It should be noted that research has proven that, historically seen, Jesus can never have been buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also, it is impossible that Jesus walked on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ as it is currently constructed. This also counts for the sites on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ pilgrims are nowadays worshipping.

 

Video by Laurien Vastenhout

Exposing “Ghosts” – An Online Hunt for Assad’s Thugs in Europe

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm
A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

By Koen Kluessien -

 

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.

The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.

The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.

One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.

The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.

Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.

 

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

 

The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.

Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.

 

No Place to Hide: War Criminals and Terrorists Among Refugees

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC
Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images – CC BY-NC

 

By Kari van der Ploeg -

This summer the world was shocked when a photo of a little Syrian boy went viral. He was pictured face down in the sand, drowned before the coast of Greece. In no time, the public opinion regarding the European refugee crisis turned emotional. A consensus was reached among the European population that a more empathetic approach to the problem was needed. However, as people started arriving in Europe and the local population saw the practical consequences of the crisis, public opinion soon shifted to anger.

As you can read in Marieke’s article, locals are mostly concerned about the large amount of new refugee shelters that are being set up and the presumed problems that come along with them. How is our government going to find money to feed these people, are the means present to give them social benefits, what if they ‘take our jobs’? Concerns about welfare are supressing the empathy some people once felt. The consequence is that the debate is polarizing and people are becoming increasingly scared. Moderation in the debate is being shunned as everyone needs to be pro or against refugees*. Fuelled by right winged politicians and media, many people no longer see refugees as people escaping war but stereotype them as troublemakers, freeloaders and war criminals. A dehumanizing rhetoric is taking over the debate by referring to refugees in terms such as a ‘tsunami of refugees’ (in other words: a deadly force of refugees).

While reading certain social media content such as the Dutch Geen Stijl’ or the Facebook page ‘NK vluchteling vangen met een vangnet’ (National Championship catching refugees with a safety net – recently removed by Facebook) one comes to believe that the majority of refugees are thugs and terrorists who have come to Europe to convert us to the Islam and rape little girls. Under the pretence of humour, people vocalize their frustrations, anger and fears and push each other into a more violent rhetoric against refugees. Some examples of these comments are: “To what extent are refugees armed exactly? I am reading more and more disturbing things about this”, “They work in groups, they don’t need weapons to rape little girls”** The continuous outpouring of venomous thoughts is  shocking to read. A lot of counter arguments are being heard as well but moderation is hard to find in the debate among common men. It made me wonder how it was possible that the debate has shifted to fast from empathy to concern and anger. Is there any truth to these worries, do we really have to be concerned about our own safety and welfare?

In September, the story of a Syrian man and his seven year old son headed the news when they were tripped by a Hungarian camerawomen as they were trying to escape from a collection point in Roszke village, Hungary. Abdul Mohsen’s life was turned upside down when it became public that he used to be a football coach back in Syria, and he was offered a place on a Spanish soccer coach academy. Mohsen and his son were welcomed personally in the Spanish capital by players of Real Madrid, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Soon after however, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) accused him of being a member of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Syria. They released a statement holding Mohsen accountable for war crimes against Kurds and other civilian minorities since 2011. The PYD published a photo of Mohsen’s Facebook account where he identifies himself as a member of the Al-Nusra front, adding that he fought Kurds near Amudeh, Serekaniya and Afrin.

The incident of Abdul Mohsen poses an example of what many people in Europe are scared of. With a large amount of people streaming in to Europe it is nearly impossible to research the background of every single one of them. According to newspaper ´de Volkskrant´, the Dutch secret services (AIVD) claim that there is no indication to be scared for large numbers of terrorists among refugees. However, prominent public Dutch figures such as Geert Wilders and Bram Moszcowicz fuel fear with fictional numbers and simplistic statements. Wilders claims that 2% of the  refugees that arrive in Europe are radicalized. Moszcowicz added that he is scared that the people that find it normal to behead others are among refugees.  “They don’t allow us to live” he said at a meeting of the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, in September. The AIVD however does not recognize these numbers or sentiments. It is possible that in individual instances a radicalized person could be among the rest of the refugees, but the numbers are in no way as high as politicians claim, according to the AIVD. There is a sound procedure in place to screen those who are entering our country. Last year only a very small number of Syrians were arrested on the suspicion of being involved in possible war crimes. It is also important to note that ISIS actually warns its men not to travel to the West, away from the caliphate. Leaving the caliphate is considered treason and makes it therefore highly unlikely that there are large amount of ISIS members among refugees.

Cases such as the one of Abdul Mohsen focusses a large part of the discussion on the dangers of war criminals among refugees. What people do not realize is that this focus brings dangers of its own. Genuine refugees are being stigmatized and threatened by the local population, whereas the presence of war criminals among them is most dangerous for them. Rena Netjes, Arabic scholar and Middle-East expert spoke with Radio 1 on Tuesday and vocalized the sentiments among refugees. According to Netjes, refugees are scared for Assad’s power, even here. Most of them still have family back in Syria and fear that their family members will be hurt if the Mukhabarat (Syrian Military Intelligence Dictatorate) discovers their identity. Netjes confirms that members of the Mukhabarat are among those who are entering Europe right now. I have spoken with a Syrian refugee myself who told me about similar sentiments. She escaped Syria and the threat of being arrested by the government in 2011, leaving her family behind in Damascus. Knowing that the people she tried to get away from are still among her, makes her feel trapped, she tells me. She is not necessarily scared for herself, but more for what they might do to her family if they find out who she is and why she left Syria.

The debate in Europe has been consumed lately with the fear of the loss of welfare to the influx of refugees. Stereotyping them as war criminals seems like an easy way of channelling these fears, which are sparked by extremely right-winged politicians. It has to be taken into consideration though that the numbers are in fact much lower than for instance the 2% of war criminals among refugees that Geert Wilders claims. Since the 1990s a lot of procedures have been created to screen these criminals and even bring them to trial. This is not only important for our own safety but also for the safety of genuine refugees themselves. I believe it is important that the public debate incorporates a more moderate discourse in which questions will be answered to the European population based on facts instead of fears. It needs to become clear who we are giving refuge to and why we do not need to be scared of them.

 * In this article I define refugees as people that escape war, not to be confused with people that migrate due to economic reasons.

**“In hoeverre zijn asielzoeker/vluchtelingen/immigranten eingelijk bewapend? Lees en hoor hier steeds meer zeer verontrustende berichten over, ook bij mij in de buurt…..” en “Ze opereren vaak in groepjes. Dan heb je geen wapens nodig om dat jonge meisje je wil op te leggen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Event Review – ‘Rooms of Humanity’

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De Balie

 

By Laurien Vastenhout & Arja Oomkens

On September 19th we visited ‘Rooms of Humanity’, an interactive and experimental exhibition which theatre directors Ilil Landboss and Giselle Vegter made especially for this evening. The promise to address the complexities of mass violence and genocide ensured a full, sold-out theatre. From experts in the field to the interested layman, this evening provided a platform to discuss one prominent question: ‘How is it possible, despite historical awareness, that genocide keeps on occurring?’ In other words, can we understand present-day violence and radicalization against civilians in, for example, Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Sudan?

‘Rooms of Humanity’ responded exactly to the urge of the audience to reflect on this pressing question. The documentary-theatrical installation ‘Sieben Räume Unbegreifen’ was part of the first ‘experience’ of this three-hour evening program. Instead of walking into a room with neatly lined-up chairs facing a podium, we walked into an empty space where everyone was standing around an immense square grid. The grid consisted out of many smaller squares, which would later be walked on by the audience. The rules of the game we were about to play seemed easy: questions would be posed and each of the participants had to either make a step in the grid or remain in place.

What appeared to be an easy game turned into a thought-provoking social experiment. First of all, this had to do with the questions posed. Questions along the lines of ‘do you feel part of a minority group?’, ‘do you consider yourself privileged?’, and ‘would you sacrifice your life for something?’ made all of us reflect on our own ideas, our ability to answer that question at that exact moment, look around at the others, and eventually take a step, or not. In this sense, the game was a good way to thoroughly think some essential questions through. It also exposed some unmistakable group behavior. When all of us were moving around on the square grid, it became extremely difficult not to conform to the behavior of the other participants; sometimes you couldn’t even move from one square grid to the other because the people that surrounded you decided not to move. Standing cramped, you were then unable to decide for yourself when your next step would be. Other conforming group behavior during the game was that almost no one took steps towards the outlines of the square grid; everyone tended to take steps towards the middle of the square. For some, this may have been because they wanted to show active participation in the game, for others, because they wanted to walk towards friends, or maybe even for other reasons. In this sense, everyone seemed to conform to the choices of the others. It would have been interesting if one of the participants had chosen not to conform, but rather looked for a ‘confrontation’ by stepping into an already occupied square or stepping to the outlines. A confrontation like this may have led to some form of discussion which would have added to the usefulness of the game.

In that sense, it was a pity that there was no analysis or explanation afterwards. The ‘game’ raised many questions but failed to answer any of these. It would have been useful to go through some of the central questions again afterwards and to publicly share thoughts on the answers to these questions. Another possibility would have been to discuss our group’s behavior after the game. For a genocide scholar, the game turned out to be a clear reminder of the fact that processes that lead to mass violence and genocide are highly complex. It also reminded us that, order to understand these processes, we must think beyond the good versus evil dichotomy, and study relations of power, peer pressure, and group conformity. A discussion on how the game reverberated these aspects of the violent process would have made for a thought provoking beginning of the evening.

Fortunately, the two hours that followed did provide the possibility to discuss all these complexities with experts on the topic. Walking around from one expert panel on propaganda to another on genocide education, all of the participants experienced what it is like to engage in such complex issues. In an effort to understand the process of radicalization, the participants learned that, while emotional engagement might be the trigger to study this subject, one needs detachment in order to do so.

 

 

 

“No one before me, history is written after me” – The destruction of cultural heritage as a tactic of war

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

 

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia-Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

By Marieke Zoodsma -

 

The destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq by the Islamic State has generated great international uproar these past weeks. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, released a public statement condemning these acts by framing that they constitute a war crime. The BBC called the buildings and artworks ‘irreplaceable’ and the destruction a huge loss for the world. For Joanna Farshakh, a Lebanese archeologist, these actions should be considered a “cultural genocide”. Sadly and despite the consternation, these acts of cultural violence by IS were not their first and will most probably not be their last (there is even a Wikipedia-page dedicated to it). The following YouTube video, for example, shows the tragic destruction of statutes in the Niniveh-museum in Mosul, Iraq.

 

The destruction of heritage as a tactic of war is not new to mankind. It can be traced back to the first Christians in Egypt and their destruction of pharaonic monuments, and is an almost inseparable part of violent conflict. Take the destruction of multiple Tibetan monasteries during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) by the Taliban in 2001, or the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo during the current protracted Syrian civil war. The annihilation of ancient sites by Islamic State are reminiscent of the deliberate attacks on cultural and religious heritage during the Bosnian war, a tactic widely used by the Bosniak (Muslim), Croat and Serb side in the conflict. For example, on the 25th of august 1992, the National Library of Sarajevo was bombed with phosphorus shells by Orthodox Serb nationalists during the siege of Sarajevo. Over a million volumes and a hundred thousand rare books were destroyed in the largest book burning in modern history. Or the destruction of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, in the city of Mostar in Herzegovina. This graceful, stone arch bridge (Mostar’s defining landmark) was constructed by the Ottomans in 1566. In 1993, it was destroyed by Croat Catholic nationalists. The Stari Most has been reconstructed in 2004 and listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.

 

Heritage is a peoples connection to the past, it distils this past into icons of identity. Heritage is that with which we all individually or collectively identify. The difference between heritage and history lies in the fact that heritage has to be widely accepted by insiders but inaccessible to outsiders; only then can it serve as a collective symbol for its possessors. It is this intangible feature of heritage, the mystique, fantasy and invention of it, that makes it distinct to each people. The uniqueness and exclusiveness of heritage is what makes it important for national identity, since, like our past, the heritage we possess differentiates us from other people.

 

Exactly the above characteristics of heritage make them justifiable to destroy by foreign invaders. Heritage is often used by previous political leaders to build up a national identity that will cross over boundaries of cultural, ethnic, national or religious groups. Such a national, heterogenic identity is exactly what the perpetrators of cultural destruction, such as IS or the nationalists during the Bosnian war, are fighting against. By eliminating every trace of material evidence, future generations cannot be reminded that people of different ethnic and religious traditions used to share a common heritage and space in that area. It is the denial of a community’s historical roots that is done by the destruction of its religious or cultural shrines. Conveniently, the perpetrators are thereby also ensured against the possibility that the expelled and dispossessed people would one day return and reclaim their homes and property.

 

Yale-professor in Assyriology Eckart Frahm states: “What is however quite unique in the case of ISIS, is that the destruction is directed against images that are thousands of years old, often damaged, and no longer worshipped by anyone, and that there is a concerted effort to use these acts of vandalism as propaganda by broadcasting them through videos.” However, as argued above, I would not frame the case of IS as unique. It is an attitude labelled as “no one before me, history is written after me” that is propagated by these perpetrators, even if these predecessors have been gone for over thousands of years. Islamic State is vigorously rewriting the past by destructing these cultural and religious sites. Similar tactics were used during the Bosnian war. In Zvornik, a town in the current Republika Srpska, there were once a dozen mosques. In the Yugoslav census of 1991, 60 percent of the residents called themselves Muslims. By the end of the war, the town was 100 percent Serb and Branko Grujić, the Serb-appointed mayor, was telling foreign visitors: “There never were any mosques in Zvornik.”

 

The use of internet and social media as propaganda for these terror tactics, as also previously discussed by Koen, is however indeed quite unique for Islamic State. Dr. Neville Bolt, teaching fellow at King’s College London, referred to this strategy as the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). To use Bolt’s phrasing, POTD is a well-planned ‘act of political violence’ which aims to create a shocking media event ‘capable of energizing populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation’. As we have seen in the case of destruction of Nimrud, global outrage leads to international condemnation. The opposite effect is that it also instigates the group’s enemies to overreact forcefully, which then helps legitimize IS’s revolutionary agenda. To use the destruction of cultural and religious heritage not only as a tactic of ethnic cleansing or even genocide, but also to utilize it for the justification of the conflict is indeed a new phenomenon in the context of warfare.

 

Where does this leave us? Will the past then be rewritten and those ancient treasures forever be lost? Which vision will eventually prevail out of the ashes may depend in part upon the world community – in this case human rights workers, international development officials, historians, policy makers – to see through these provoking acts of violence and propaganda. Unfortunately, it does leave these riches of the world to the violent vagaries of Islamic State.

 

 

Further reading:
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity – John R. Gillis (ed.), 1994. Princeton: Princeton University Press

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries – Neville Bolt, 2012. Hurst and Columbia University Press