If only the West cared.
I once met an authentic hero, a man who had done more to preserve and protect human cultural heritage than a hundred governments. This was Donny George (Youkhanna), the Assyrian Christian who held the unenviable position of Director General of Iraq’s National Museum following the Allied invasion in 2003. Through superhuman efforts and raw courage, he recovered thousands of ancient artifacts stolen or lost during the ensuing mayhem, thus saving a critical portion of the earliest remains of civilization.
Tragically, the world may soon need many more such individuals.
In a valuable recent column, Christopher Dickey warned that “ISIS Is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq.” He described evidence that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham had already destroyed many treasures in museums that had come under its control, and the jihadists were selling off others to finance their activities. Dickey was highlighting a critical danger, but it is part of a much larger menace to the world’s heritage. However maniacal ISIS might be, it did not start this trend, which can also be associated with some of the West’s close allies in the region. Nor, significantly, is it only directed against Christian or Jewish (or pagan) sites. This is equal opportunity bigotry.
From its early centuries, Islam proclaimed the supremacy of the written word, and above all the Koran. Despite that principle, Muslims soon attributed holiness to particular places and individuals, to members of the Prophet’s family or latter-day sheikhs and saints, and the places associated with them. Muslims around the world developed a lively culture of pilgrimage to these lesser holy places, over and above the twin Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Since the eighteenth century, radical reform movements like Wahhabism have urged the elimination of these rival expressions of faith. For Wahhabi or Salafist Muslims, those material ideas of holiness are just not Islamic, not orthodox. Today, an ordinary pilgrim who makes the slightest respectful gesture to a shrine or tomb will soon be sternly reprimanded: “No, Brother, it is not Sunnah!”
In the 1920s, Wahhabism gained power in the land we now call Saudi Arabia, and the consequences for cultural heritage have been catastrophic. The Saudis have ruthlessly destroyed houses, mosques and shrines associated with Muhammad himself, his family and early associates. They have demolished places of ancient sanctity as well as immense historical interest. If Westerners cared about the history that is being so recklessly destroyed, we would pillory the regime for one of the most egregious cultural crimes of the century, at least equal to the devastation associated with the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Mainstream Muslim groups have protested repeatedly, but in vain.
Saudi actions have set a very high bar for Islamist and extremist movements around the world who are anxious to prove their puritanical credentials, their absolute rejection of idolatry or syncretism. We think of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha figures in Afghanistan in 2001, or the carnage wrought on Islamic shrines and tombs in Mali in 2012, particularly around the great city of Timbuktu. In Mali, incidentally, the perpetrators belonged to the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine, Defenders of the Faith, a name that perfectly expresses the goal of the vandalism. True Islam can only exist free of material symbols.
Once a movement takes that course, it has several options as to how to dispose of offensive objects and places. Simple obliteration achieves its purposes, and also amounts to an instructive demonstration for those who observe it. The fact that an allegedly holy place can be destroyed without consequences for the perpetrators — no angelic intervention, no rain of blood — sends a powerful message that God does not care about it and will not protect it. The defenders of faith have made their point.
But other strategies are also possible. As Dickey points out, groups like ISIS may despise and loathe the antiquities that come into their hands, but that is no reason why they should not profit from them. To use a close analogy, in 1933, the new Soviet government sold the famous gospel book, the Codex Sinaiticus, to Britain. If religious believers were willing to pay for this trash, reasoned the Reds, why should Communists not profit from their superstitious desires, and use the money to advance the cause of world revolution?
ISIS follows identical principles, as it launches wholesale into the black market in antiquities. That move has major consequences for Western intelligence agencies. For forty years now, those agencies have known that the best way to track terrorist movements is to follow illicit trafficking in three critical commodities, in guns, gold, and drugs. Now, a fourth element is being added to that Unholy Trinity, as terrorist acts will be funded by the proceeds from Assyrian statues or Christian chalices, Jewish manuscripts or Sumerian tablets. I hope that our counter-terrorist agencies are working very closely with scholars and archaeologists.
But there is still another option, and it is the most frightening. Extremists like al-Qaeda and ISIS use terrorist violence to intimidate their enemies, and to demonstrate their power. The problem is that the media are fickle and the public rapidly becomes accustomed to even the most horrific acts. If they did not exactly become routine, then even beheading videos soon lost their power to seize global headlines.
And that takes us back to the world of antiquities. What better way to grab Western attention reliably and repeatedly than to destroy cultural heritage — to annihilate the remains of Greek temples and Crusader castles, Roman mosaics and ancient monasteries? And how much better if those sites have some Biblical connotation! Such acts are easy, in the sense that they demand no infiltration of enemy territory, and no physical risk. They might even be profitable, in that Western nations might pay substantial ransoms to avoid the destruction of future sites. And the shock value is immense.
We may be entering the age of heritage terrorism.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.