Following the capture of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Syria, there are mounting fears for its ancient relics at the hands of ISIS. The deplorable scenes of ISIS militants toppling and smashing statues and carvings in Mosul’s museum and the destruction of the ancient Iraqi city of Hatra in early March 2015 sent shock waves throughout the international community, providing insightful evidence of ISIS’s complete disregard for cultural property.
ISIS’s destruction of ancient cities and its antiquities has evoked strong memories of the Taliban’s annihilation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. However, experts claim that the practice of destroying what the group argues are false idols – known as iconoclasm – is nothing more than a PR exercise. According to Shiraz Maher, a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, the destruction represented a stated effort to combat polytheism – the worship of multiple gods – and encourage a return to monotheism – the belief in a single deity, “But the world eventually returned to polytheism, before the Prophet Mohammed arrived and smashed the idols again, once again in the cause of monotheism.” He said the practice was central to Salafism, a doctrine within Sunni Islam followed by IS, which insists on the promotion of the literal truth as understood by its apparent meaning in the scripture of the Koran. “It is very much at the heart of the Salafist tradition. But we saw it with the Taliban in 2001 and we now see this group doing the same thing.”
“It is also a means of asserting their authority and saying ‘We are in charge, we will do what we want and we don’t care about the outrage this causes’.” He suggested the group was following the example set by the Prophet Mohammed’s destruction of idols in Mecca. “These statues and idols, these artefacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars,” said Maher.
James Noyes, author of The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam, told international affairs think-tank Atlantic Council that modern iconoclasm was “not an accident of warfare”. “It is at the heart of a theological and territorial struggle which stretches back to the origins of Islam – with Syria and Iraq situated on the fault-line of that struggle,” he said. “As ISIS fights to define the frontiers of its co-called caliphate, iconoclasm represents a means of bridging the principles of theological and political unity.”
However this is nothing new.
Last July, ISIS demolished shrines cherished by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, such as the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul and the shrine of Prophet Seth, who was considered the third son of Adam and Eve.
Despite public denouncements, no concrete action has so far been taken by any government or intergovernmental organization. Poor security in the region has enabled ISIS to seize control of vast territories in Iraq and Syria, allowing it to enforce its puritanical interpretation of Islam unabated.
The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities asked the international community to intervene to help it protect its cultural heritage but the U.S. issued a statement ruling out airstrikes to protect Iraqi antiquities for lack of sufficient partners “on the ground.” This is not the first time Western powers have declined to intervene to protect Iraqi cultural property. During the Gulf War, the U.S. and British governments promised to protect the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, but failed to do so resulting in the major looting of thousands of antiquities in the museum.
If the world continues to sit by and do nothing then the history of civilization will be slowly wiped out.