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.
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