Why is ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq?

The destruction of ancient Iraqi artifacts – a tactic employed in cultural genocide – is part of the Islamic State militants' efforts to reform the region into a single, homogenous Muslim caliphate under its control. 

AP Photo via militant social media account
In this image made from video posted on a social media account affiliated with the Islamic State group on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, militants attack ancient artifacts with sledgehammers in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq. The extremist group has destroyed a number of shrines -- including Muslim holy sites -- in order to eliminate what it views as heresy.

The Islamic State – aka ISIS – continues its campaign of violence, this time attacking history itself.

new video that surfaced Thursday purportedly shows members of the radical group taking sledgehammers, pickaxes, and even jackhammers to the ancient artifacts housed within the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.

“The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues,” a bearded man in a white shirt and black kufi says in Arabic at the beginning of the video. “This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.”

“Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols and remains, it is easy for us to obey… even if this costs billions of dollars,” the man says.

The camera then cuts to a series of scenes showing statues – some reportedly more than 3,000 years old – being reduced to rubble. Militants can be seen knocking down icons and destroying idols that date back to the Assyrian Empire, which ruled a large chunk of what is now the Middle East from 2500 BC to about 600 BC.

The destruction at the Mosul Museum is only the latest of the Islamic State’s efforts to eradicate any hint of of Iraq’s non-Muslim culture, as the militant group strives to reform the region into a single, homogenous caliphate under its control.

Part of that effort requires a rewriting of history: Earlier this week, news outlets reported that ISIS ransacked and burned the Mosul Public Library, destroying more than 8,000 ancient and rare books and manuscripts.

“This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq,” Irina Bokova, director-general of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a statement Tuesday. “It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

The tactic is unofficially called “cultural genocide,” a term that David Nersessian, assistant dean of global programs at Boston University School of Management, has used to describe attacks on an ethnic or religious group’s wider institutions – including its languages, traditional practices and ways, religious institutions and objects, and clergy members, academics, and intellectuals.

The UN’s “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” validates the rights of any group to maintain, observe, and protect its culture and traditions. But any human rights treaty depends on the goodwill of the participating states, and those “most likely to commit cultural genocide are least likely to participate in any voluntary human rights scheme,” according to Mr. Nersessian.

Regrettably, the destruction and looting of art during times of war goes back to Greek and Roman times. More recently, during World War II, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin each envisioned a “super museum” that would showcase all of Europe’s great works of art, Matthew Steen wrote in an article titled, “Collateral Damage: The Destruction and Looting of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict.”

The result, Mr. Steen wrote, was that the two sides spent the war “looting, plundering, and destroying each other’s cultural property from private and public collections.”

The same could be said of the warring sides of the brutal conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, according to András Riedlmayer, a Harvard University expert on the region’s cultural heritage. In his study, Mr. Riedlmayer wrote that while three years of war in Bosnia resulted in more than 4 million refugees and 200,000 dead, "[t]he cultural casualties were no less staggering."

He continued:

More than one thousand of Bosnia’s mosques, hundreds of Catholic churches and scores of Orthodox churches, monasteries, private and public libraries, archives, and museums were shelled, burned, and dynamited, and in many cases even the ruins were removed by nationalist extremists in order to complete the cultural and religious “cleansing” of the land they had seized.

It happened again in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban set about destroying thousands of ancient Buddhist statues across the country; Al-Qaeda militants also torched a library full of historic manuscripts as they fled Timbuktu, Mali, in 2013.

Attacking a people’s cultural works can be tantamount to attacking its very identity. As The Christian Science Monitor reported after the destruction of the Mosul library Sunday:

The pain felt by Iraqis at the destruction of a national treasure is palpable.

“What a pity!" Akil Kata who left Mosul to exile years ago, told the Fiscal Times. "We used to go to the library in the 1970s. It was one of the greatest landmarks of Mosul."

Added Rayan al-Hadidi, an activist and a blogger from Mosul, “Nine hundred years ago, the books of the Arab philosopher Averroes were collected before his eyes ... and burned. One of his students started crying while witnessing the burning. Averroes told him ... the ideas have wings... but I cry today over our situation."

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