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Blogging Heritage Destruction in Conflict Zones: An Addendum

July 6, 2014

Another day, another deluge of news stories highlighting ever more destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.

It’s all so wearying that one has to take a step back and remember some perspective: Archaeological looting and destruction is one of Iraq and Syria’s least important problems right now.

The United Nations estimates that 9 million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war. After three years of fighting in Syria well over 100,000 people are dead. Iraq is about to break into three countries and possibly draw all of its neighbors into a major regional war. In the past month 2,400 people have been killed and an additional 1 million are refugees.

In Syria last year the government gassed over a thousand people. A rebel commander videotaped himself eating a dead government soldier. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria proudly made a video of themselves driving around towns shooting random people in the street. In Iraq the same group sorted Shia prisoners out from the rest, machine-gunned them, buried them in mass graves, and proudly posted the pictures on the Internet.

And we’re worried about the statues and ancient buildings?

What good does it do to save a statue when an entire country is being destroyed?

Those of us who study the ancient Near East may appear to be focused on narrow-self interest. After all, sometimes our careers seem to be going up in smoke right before our eyes. But that would be a unwarranted judgment. Many scholars who study Iraq and Syria have traveled there and know many local people. They care about what happens to the country and its inhabitants, not just its artifacts.

But the artifacts are what we have expertise in. Scholars who are experts in counterinsurgency, the modern Middle East, or resolving sectarian civil wars can contribute to solving the conflict through their consulting and publications. Scholars who are experts in the ancient Near East can do what they can to cultural heritage. As Sam Hardy has pointed out, “If nothing else, people who cannot help otherwise can help in the protection and/or documentation of cultural heritage, so it does not (necessarily) detract from more immediate humanitarian efforts.”

In short, if there’s nothing else we could be doing to improve the situation, documenting the destruction of cultural heritage is better than doing nothing.

Two years ago, with sites in Mali and Libya being destroyed or under threat, Alexander Joffe asked “But are we willing to kill or die for the past?” He never quite answered that question, but our answer should be clear: No. We don’t invade a country to save its artifacts. If we stage a humanitarian intervention we do so to save its people. They are always more important than the statues.

Keeping with this principle requires that we also avoid furthering the goals of tyrannical regimes as we try to save cultural heritage. While rumblings have been made that artifacts are better ransomed then destroyed, if the money paid for them goes to fund a brutal terrorist organization massacring human beings in two countries, this is not a price worth paying. Again, human life is more important than statues.

When a nation is burning, what good does it do to document the fire?

First, by keeping track of what is lost, we keep alive the hope that artifacts that are lost or damaged may someday be found again or repaired and restored. The al-Askari shrine was built again after it was destroyed in 2006. Poland used old 17th century paintings to rebuild Warsaw after the Nazis demolished most of it in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising.

Second, tracking the destruction communicates something.

It won’t shame ISIS, because ISIS has no shame. Even the Nazis tried to hide their atrocities. ISIS proudly posts them all on the Internet for everyone to see. They’re not looking for sympathy. They’re looking to spread fear. Their videos are the chest-thumping of young men for whom possession of a gun and the ability to kill free of legal consequences has allowed them to feel real power for the first time in their lives.

But it could dissuade others from following.

A person with sympathies to ISIS probably won’t be convinced by the argument that ISIS and its sympathizers are evil, because hardly anyone sees themselves as evil. But their attraction to ISIS’ ideology could be broken if ISIS are shown to be hypocrites.

In multiple cases, ISIS declared that statues and shrines were against Islam and either locked them away or destroyed them. They also derive significant funding from smuggling antiquities which are allegedly against Islam abroad and then selling them. While proclaiming pure aniconic Islam on one hand, they are perfectly happy to tolerate artifacts when they can make money off of them.

This in turn raises questions about other artifacts that ISIS has destroyed. When ISIS confiscated Assyrian sculptures last February that looters had unearthed at Tell Ajaja and then smashed them with sledgehammers, did they do it because statues of Assyrian gods and lions are against Islam, or because the looters didn’t give them a cut of the proceeds?

Finally, artifacts and other cultural heritage objects are important because they represent ideas.

ISIS didn’t blow up a half-dozen Shia mosques because they thought they were an architectural eyesore. They blew them up because ISIS has declared itself to be the new Islamic caliphate, the leader of the entire Islamic world and the successor to the Rashidun Caliphate which immediately followed Muhammad. This is opposed by Shia Muslims, who believe that Caliphs cannot be chosen by popular acclamation, rather, they must be chosen by God from among the descendants of Muhammad. Mosques where Muslims gather to remember the death of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad who refused to pledge allegiance to the caliphate and claimed he was the rightful successor to the Prophet, represent a threat to ISIS’ legitimacy. So long as those mosques stand, they are a reminder that all Muslims are not unified under the rule of one caliph, and ISIS’ claim to be leading Muslims back to the old golden days of Islamic unity looks very questionable.

In the two hundred years from 1791-1991, war was waged primarily by nation-states, who fielded huge armies raised by conscription. War has changed. War is now fought by smaller and smaller armies made up of volunteers who joined for ideological reasons. In modern war, ideas matter. Ideologies matter. And wars end when ideologies shatter.

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