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Vandalism of museum artifacts by ISIS is more than a war crime

Mohammed Emwazi


Julian Duncan, Opinions Editor
Photo credit: 
MCT Campus

At the end of February, the Islamic State released a video of militants destroying priceless ancient artifacts dating back to the 7th century B.C. The images are from a museum in Mosul, Iraq, which has been under ISIS control since June.

The video cites a Koranic verse justifying  the destruction of non-Islamic images. “The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him,” said an unidentified speaker in the video.

The following week, ISIS bulldozed ruins of the ancient city of Nimrud, and reports show that they have bulldozed landmarks in the ancient city of Dur Sharrukin, the capital of the Assyrian empire. These affronts to cultural heritage, which are reminiscent of the 2001 dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, have been declared a war crime by the UN.

The targets of Jihadi Militants are those which are symbolic of culture and free thought. Museums, schools, journalists, minority religious and ethnic groups, Shi’ia mosques, Christian churches are all symbols of dissent from the narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam put forth by ISIS and similar groups. The destruction of history by ISIS militants is an attempt to wipe out any identity that does not conform to an interpretation of Islam that they control, and whose followers they can also control.

Such zealous acts of cultural suppression should come as no surprise from a group whose conquests have been accompanied by the beheading, crucifixion, and live burial of children. Yet the violence directed at minority or dissenting populations, coupled with ISIS’ war on sites associated  with Iraqi culture and history reveals a larger narrative into which the destruction of Iraqi artifacts fits that is far more ominous, and demands a more severe accusation than simply labeling them war crimes.

In an attempt to describe the horrible acts committed by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, Rafael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, coined the term “genocide,” defining it as “the destruction of whole populations—of national, racial and religious groups—both biologically and culturally.”

According to a paper entitled “Cultural Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Destroying Heritage, Destroying Identity” by Pamela de Condappa, 1454 cultural monuments were destroyed during the genocide directed at Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovena in the 1990s. The majority of these were of Muslim significance, and primarily included libraries, historical centers, and places of worship.

Similarly, the Armenian genocide committed under the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century targeted churches, monasteries and intellectuals while using tactics of deportation and forced conversion in its total subjugation of the Armenian people. The political domination of the Armenians by the Ottoman government was not achieved merely by slaughtering 1.5 million Armenians, but by attacking their cultural traditions.

Viewing the destruction of historical artifacts by ISIS extremists evokes a  visceral reaction. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova described the acts as “cultural cleansing.” In light of ISIS’ ideological violence, their oppression toward minorities, including Christians, Shi’ias, Yezidis, Kurds, and others, as well as their attempt to blot out the identities of the peoples they wish to subjugate, the destruction of these artifacts should not simply regarded as a mere war crime. Rather, these acts are a part of a larger narrative of genocide, directed at those who stand in the way of the establishment of the Caliphate.

ISIS’ crimes are not only directed against the peoples of Iraq. Historians estimate that the first human civilizations emerged in Mesopotamia in about the 4th millennium B.C. Thus, these attacks not only are destructive to the identity and heritage of Iraqis, but to all humanity. Therefore, the West must not become blind to the plight of peoples suffering under or opposing ISIS. Rather, we must stand in solidarity with them against ISIS, and all forms of dogmatic extremism.