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Iconoclasm reborn with Islamic State fanaticism: The destruction of cultural heritage as propaganda

The extent of the destruction is uncertain in the fog of war

It is a bitter irony that the world is only coming to understand the complexity and diversity of Iraq’s, and before that Syria’s, peoples, religions and cultures just as they face destruction. The drive by the terrorist group Islamic State and its allies across the Nineveh plains in Iraq is threatening the lives and patrimony of groups that many know little about: the Chaldean Christians, lesser-known Shia and Sufi sects, Turkmen and the mostly Kurdish Yazidi with their syncretic rites. A living, multicultural mosaic two millennia in the making is being shattered.

Islamic State (IS) is believed to have a special demolition unit called Katayib Taswiya. In Iraq, it is targeting non-Salafist mosques and Muslim shrines that were built above graves and are thus deemed idolatrous because prophets and saints are being venerated instead of Allah directly. One site that has been destroyed is the Mosque of Yunus, or Tomb of Jonah (a modern rebuilding of the historic structure), in Mosul, northern Iraq, while there are unconfirmed, and in some cases conflicting, reports about many others.

What is apparent is that IS is using the destruction of cultural heritage as a deliberate weapon of war. There are echoes of post-Tito Yugoslavia, where the ambition of nationalist, Orthodox Serbs was to create a Greater Serbia. This was to be achieved by sowing discord among faith groups, then by land grabs and the destruction of cultural heritage, designed to encourage the exodus of Catholics, Muslims and other groups, never to return.

Benjamin Isakhan of Deakin University, Melbourne, who is researching the links between the destruction of heritage and ethnic cleansing in Iraq, argues that “central to IS ideology and action is the desire to rid the world of a complex and cosmopolitan past. It is a type of cultural ‘Ground Zero’, cleansing the perceived blasphemy of the past: from the ashes, a new, holy and serene Islamic caliphate will emerge. Any monument or motif, any artefact or architecture, any shrine, church or mosque that contradicts their strict and austere vision must be torn down and destroyed.”

Heghnar Watenpaugh, an associate professor of art history at the University of California at Davis, describes the terrorist group’s recording and dissemination of its iconoclasm as “a modern, contemporary way of creating spectacle. They know it inspires horror and fear. It’s part of their propaganda machine.”

Propaganda obscures truth

Propaganda, counter-propaganda and the difficulty of gathering independent evidence are also hampering efforts to learn the true fate of many historic monuments. According to Sam Hardy, the author of the Conflict Antiquities blog, footage circulating online of the Tomb of Jonah, which shows interior tombs being smashed with hammers, is at least ten months old, and has also been used previously as proof of the destruction of Sufi tombs in the Syrian town of Raqqa, where IS has its headquarters, and of Jewish tombs in an unidentified location. (The Tomb of Jonah was eventually destroyed in July.)

Hardy suggests that part of the problem is IS’s sophisticated media strategy. He says that the group may be issuing threats to Christian communities to drive them out, but may also be under-reporting its actions against them because it might provoke effective international intervention from the West.

Toll of destruction

In Iraq, there are reports of the destruction of the Shia al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque, the 14th-century Jirjis mosque and the mosque of the prophet Seth in Mosul, as well as the golden-domed Shiite Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine in Tal Afar. As in Syria, there are also widespread reports of IS targeting the heritage of Christians and other minority faith groups, as well as non-Salafist Muslims. In Raqqa, figurative statues including a depiction of the poet and philosopher Abul ‘Ala Al-Ma’arri (973-1058), who is revered by Shiites, have been destroyed, as have an 18th-century Sufi shrine and a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic that was discovered in 2007. A pair of carved Assyrian lions reported to be 3,000 years old may also have been smashed, although their age has been questioned.

In the Aramaic-speaking, early Christian pilgrimage village of Maaloula in Syria, where fighting started late last year, there are stories of burned and ransacked churches, hillside statues of Jesus and Mary being destroyed, church bells being removed and the bodies of saints being dug up. All of the statues in the Roman cemetery at Shash Hamdan, near Aleppo, are said to have been shattered, while photographs are circulating online of the smashing of an Assyrian statue that was excavated at Tell Ajajah and dates back to the eighth century BC.

There are also reports of the destruction of the Yazidi shrines of Sherfedinat Shingal in Iraq and Sheikh Adi in Lalish, but these were unverified—and contested—as we went to press. Defenders claim that attempts to destroy the sites have failed and that Yazidi refugees are living among the tombs in Lalish, in northern Iraq.

Other contested reports include claims of the widespread destruction of antiquities. For example, a source in Mosul’s antiquities department told the respected Middle East news website Al-Monitor that reports of the destruction of Lamassu, a 3,200-year-old half-human winged statue, were false.

Al-Monitor also questions reports of damage to Christian heritage in Iraq, suggesting that, unlike in Syria, the jihadists have so far held back. Anwar Hadaya, a Christian member of the Nineveh Provincial Council, agrees, saying that no churches or Christian monasteries have been destroyed by IS. “That is not to praise them,” he says. “Perhaps they are trying to send a message to the world that they are revolutionaries, not a terrorist group.”

The principal focus of IS’s iconoclasm so far seems to be other Muslims’ shrines and images. The intolerance of the images, shrines and sacred sites of other faiths stems from a branch of Salafism that looks to the purist teaching of the Medieval scholar Sheikh Taq ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) and his literal take on sacred texts. The Salafi follow the conservative Hanbali school of jurisprudence, which is not universally accepted in Islam. (In Egypt, “acting like a Hanbali” is a colloquialism for people who are particularly narrow-minded in their piety.) The Q’ran contains no such censure, but the Hadith (texts interpreting the Q’ran) do contain verses that, although they are disputed, appear to ban all structures taller than a hand’s span built above graves.

What can be done?

Despite efforts by Unesco, Icomos and Blue Shield, as well as groups such as Heritage for Peace and the Heritage Task Force, and even archaeologists secretly recording damage, an authoritative list of destruction in Syria and Iraq has yet to be compiled.

Nonetheless, Unesco is aiming to establish a project this month or next in Iraq to improve the flow of information. Funding is being sought from Arab states, similar to Unesco’s European Union-funded Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project, which launched in March. For the moment, the fate of Iraq’s heritage lies mostly in the hands of local people: in Mosul, for example, residents of the Souq al-Sharin neighbourhood slept in their local mosque one weekend to foil the IS demolition squad, who had to make do with levelling the graveyard outside. Whether the mosque is still standing today, however, is unknown.