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Screenshot of ISIS fighters destroying artifacts

Islamic State's Destruction of World Heritage Aims at Resetting Culture

Naser Khader

Tragically, it has been popping up more and more recently: Jihadists from the Islamic State are destroying invaluable cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria. World cultural heritage, that is. Museums and other cultural sites and artifacts in Mosul, Iraq, have already suffered severely from the radical Islamists’ heartless attempt to annihilate anything related to cultural history, heritage and diversity. More recently the city of Palmyra, Syria has suffered too. It is no less than a disaster if ISIS gains control over the ancient city of Palmyra, which is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Carool Kersten, a senior lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London, accurately points out that ISIS is trying their hardest to enforce a “year zero” policy through the destruction of ancient cultural heritage. They want to strip an essential part of the associated identity of Syria and Iraq. As a world society we have an obligation to prevent this from happening.

Black Market for Artifacts Is an ISIS Revenue Source

It has been confirmed from several sources that ISIS has been increasingly active on the black market, selling cultural and historical artifacts. Make no mistake, some of these artifacts are ancient and absolutely invaluable, hence extremely attractive on the black market. This is surely a multi-million dollar source of revenue for the terrorist group. That tells us that even though ISIS is ruthlessly indifferent to human life, they are far from unorganized or unintelligent. They are very much aware that a modern terrorist organization needs a substantial financial foundation to sustain their terrorist activities and to keep growing and expanding.

The attacks on ancient sites in Syria and Iraq raise the question, what will need to happen for Western society to intervene? Does ISIS need to publically pulverize pyramids in Egypt before we acknowledge that this is a global attack? It is a global responsibility to protect the Syrian and Iraqi public from everything ISIS stands for, including significant cultural heritage. Once destroyed, it cannot be restored.

In a feature published at Al Arabiya, the renowned academic and activist, Dr. Halla Diyab describes accurately how Syria throughout thousands of years has been the gathering point for people from near and far. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Hittites of Turkey, the Canaanites, the Phoenician traders of Lebanon, and the Sumerians and Assyrians of Iraq are just a few of the groups of people that have settled in the land of the current Syria in one way or the other. They have left an invaluable cultural heritage, whether measured in money or affection. It is in everyone’s interest to protect these irreplaceable cultural treasures that ISIS are currently pulverizing. The learning of history through cultural heritage plays an important role in our understanding of ourselves. Curator at Oxford University, Paul Collins, explains that there are essential parts of our identity development hidden in any cultural heritage. In his analysis of the recent attacks in Mosul, he finds that the Islamic State aims to eliminate all current identity markers of Iraq – all in order to make place for a new identity, predefined by ISIS. This is an identity built on radical, extremist Islamist views. The attacks on cultural artifacts may appear harmless at first sight but their destruction is part of a much bigger plan to globally reset cultures to an ISIS standard! Each destroyed artifact should be a red flag that Western society cannot ignore.

Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the world’s oldest capital. Signs of human presence in the area trace all the way back to 8,000-10,000 BC. Realizing that Damascus can indeed fall to the merciless hands of ISIS is heartwrenching. We are obliged to and must put an end to this madness. Now!

UNESCO Condemns Attacks – And So What?

The UN’s organization for education, culture, communication and science, UNESCO, has condemned the Islamic State’s destruction of numerous world heritage sites. They have even labeled them war crimes. That is all fine and to be expected. However, one must be extremely naïve to think that such declarations have any kind of influence on the thinking of ruthless jihadists.

Archeologist and Middle East expert, Alexander Joffe, says that cultural institutions are designed to work according to their purpose during peacetime, not war. His point is that UNESCO’s voice has no clout in this context. Furthermore, he points to the possibility of initiating temporary emergency laws making it harder for the trade of antiques to take place in the area. That being said, Joffe has little hopes for the effect of such initiatives due to the sky high monetary value of the historic artifacts. The associated rewards of selling the artifacts simply outweigh the risk of being caught, thus making it attractive to non-ISIS individuals as well. Joffe ends his analysis of ISIS’ destruction of cultural heritage by stating that it requires force – strong force – to end a cultural and historical crisis of such significance as we are witnessing now. A force “which no western country is ready to deploy.”

It is an unpopular suggestion and request, and people are indeed reluctant to consider deployment. As a matter of fact I would rather not have to consider it either. However, there is no way of getting around deploying western troops on the ground in the fight against ISIS if we want to put an end to all the atrocities towards mankind currently taking place. The above-mentioned attacks on world cultural heritage sites are only made possible because ISIS has absolute control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, and is rapidly expanding across the Middle East. Most recently the central Iraqi city, Ramadi has fallen into the hands of ISIS. It has been reported how bodies, including those of women and children, are scattered all over the city. The contribution of aerial bombings by the West is a good contribution, but it is a contribution of symbolic character rather than actual political and military pro-action. Our half-hearted attempt to wipe out ISIS simply doesn’t cut it! ISIS will continue to grow stronger if we do not upgrade the current military opposition towards ISIS significantly. Again, make no mistake: ISIS jihadists are numerous. Ready to fight. Supported by a sophisticated, financially stable terrorist organization. Trained. Either we underestimate the strength and global threat from ISIS, or we underestimate the brutality of the crimes taking place every single day committed against humanity by ISIS.

One of the side effects of ISIS has been the devastating impact on the economies in the Levant. Naturally, Syria and Iraq are substantially affected economically. The World Bank assess that income per capita has dropped with 23% for Syria and 28% for Iraq compared to the estimated level the countries would have had without ISIS. The rest of the countries in the Levant, namely Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are deeply affected as well. One of the main sources for financial instability is the enormous number of refugees that stream from Syria and Iraq. The World Bank has assessed that all the countries in the Levant have lost a combined total of 35 million US dollars in 2007 prices. This is most likely an underestimation because the opportunity costs of not having ISIS around for several years now are not included. The current, extremely low level of foreign direct investments tells a tough truth.

In other words, should one not agree with the humanitarian reasons for immediately deploying western troops on the ground against ISIS, the economic incentives are hard to ignore.

Nazism with Hitler as the front leader destroyed invaluable world heritage and cultural treasures. The Islamists of ISIS are performing the exact same acts of destruction and annihilation as we speak. As a world society we are obliged more than anything to protect human life. And we should be committed as well to protecting and preserving the world cultural heritage that bears witness to the civilizations that have shaped us throughout the millennia.

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