ISIS has declared war on cultural heritage. Is there anything we can do?

In the past few weeks, the media has been flooded with reports of the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, destroying Iraq’s ancient heritage. They’ve smashed Mesopotamian treasures at the Mosul Museum, burned thousands of rare books and manuscripts in the Mosul Library, and bulldozed entire preserved Assyrian cities, including UNESCO World Heritage sites at Nimrud and Hatra. The Islamic State filmed this devastating footage as propaganda intended to outrage and taunt an international audience.

Their efforts have succeeded. Like many others, I could barely watch a widely disseminated video of burly men taking sledgehammers to the majestic objects in the Mosul Museum. Numerous organizations and institutions have released statements condemning the Islamic State’s iconoclasm in the strongest terms, but there seems to be little that outsiders can do about the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage except watch from the sidelines in horror.

What we can do, though, is educate ourselves and others about the gross distortions of Islam that the Islamic State makes to serve their political ideology. To understand the distortions is to recognize that the Islamic State’s true motivations are not religious but selfish, to attain power by brutish and psychological warfare. In so doing, we join Muslim leaders worldwide who have denounced the Islamic State, declaring that this militant group has nothing to do with Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, the Koran does not forbid figural imagery, including images of the prophet, but it does reproach the worship of idols. This has been the Islamic State’s stated rationale for destroying antiquities, but it does not compute on many levels. First, the Islamic State funds itself through the black-market trade of looted antiquities—if they are destroying icons to uphold the Koran, then dispersing these objects to the rest of the world does not make sense. Second, these objects stood in plain view of devout Muslim rulers since at least the seventh century. And we know from written records that these rulers revered the past—Mesopotamian, Hellenistic, and Roman alike. They didn’t perceive the visual culture of other religions as threats to Islam.

Most importantly, we also can grow our collective empathy for the citizens of Iraq. The destruction of Mesopotamian antiquity literally and symbolically erases the multicultural history of Iraq, cleaning the slate for a new history authored by the victors. It is an extension of the Islamic State’s horrific crimes against humanity, their slaughter of Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and  Christians—among other groups—in a bid to culturally and ethnically cleanse a population already impoverished and decimated by years of warfare.

As we regard these atrocious acts from afar, the very least we can do is try to obstruct the Islamic State’s program of psychological warfare by not taking the bait. While we cannot prevent their cultural and ethnic destruction on Iraqi soil, we can prevent them from inscribing their version of history and culture on us.

(Photo: A detail from Winged Genius, a panel from the imperial palace in Nimrud, now at the MIA in gallery G240.)