The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, considered to be one of the most well-preserved structures in the ancient city, has joined the growing list of historic sites to be razed by ISIS. In 2015, satellite images released by the UN showing before and after the demolition reveal the sheer scale of the devestation. The city is one of the ancient world’s most important cultural centres and has stood for 2000 years. But ISIS’ actions are not just acts of extreme vandalism. The destruction is part of an overall strategy and ISIS makes clear that, in its eyes, it is religiously justifiable. In a similar act, another Takfiri movement, Taliban in Afghanistan, had destroyed the historic Buddha statues.
The Salafi ideology espoused by ISIS centres on returning Islam to what the group believes it was like during the time of the Prophet Mohammad. This means two main applications: emphasising monotheism (Tawhid) and eradicating any form of association with God (Shirk or polytheism).
ISIS believes the presence of cultural sites violates these creeds. They used the notion of eradicating shirk in their justification for destroying the shrine of the prophet Jonah in Mosul in July 2014 as well as the shrine of Imam Nawawi in Syria in January 2015. ISIS views shrines like these as an affront to monotheism. The demolition of shrines by ISIS runs opposite to the thought of many Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslims around the world who have venerated shrines for centuries. ISIS’ extremist activities are indeed an attack on the world’s heritage, but this heritage includes many historic sites that hold great importance in popular Islam, and as a result highlight the distance between the group and mainstream Muslims.
The justification for these acts is often linked to the time of the Prophet Mohammad in which, according to hadith literature, he destroyed idols and images depicting pagan deities in the Kaba after the conquest of Mecca. However, according to early Islamic historians, images of Jesus, Mary, and Abraham inside the Kaba were kept on the orders of the prophet himself.
There is scant regard for the example of the early Muslims.
Furthermore, when the companions of the prophet and earlier generations of Muslims conquered lands containing historic sites like Petra, Nimrud, the Pyramids of Giza, the Bamiyan Buddhas and Palmyra, they did not feel compelled to destroy the historical monuments. In actuality it is a Salafi-jihadi interpretation that considers any historical artefact that is culturally or religiously alien to be an invitation to polytheism, even if no one has worshiped it for millennia – if ever. In this case there is scant regard for the example of the early Muslims that are so highly regarded by ISIS in their propaganda.
Historic sites are being targeted by ISIS because of the cultural and religious significance they have to certain communities. Sites belonging to Shia, Sufi Sunni, Kurdish (Sunni), Yezidi and Christian communities have been subjected to destruction and looting. The clear message is that they are now irrelevant; the cultural and ethnic legacies of these people have no place in the ‘caliphate.’
Historically, Islamic caliphates such as the Ottomans and the Abbasids accommodated religious and ethnic diversity among their subjects. This is further evidence, if it was needed, that ISIS’ claim of an Islamic caliphate is entirely out of line with Islamic tradition
A New Beginning
Revered historic buildings and monuments that point to the glories of past civilisations are an ideological threat to the caliphate that ISIS believes surpasses them all. In ISIS’ view there should be nothing that can challenge its legitimacy, whether Christian, Shia, Sufi or anything else. With a clean slate, ISIS seeks to present to future generations a new version of history, in which its binary narrative of ISIS heroes fighting evil will be able to flourish. Obliterating historic sites is an attempt to create a blank canvas for ISIS to build on: a new beginning.
As the reaction of the world has shown, ISIS has again captured our attention. The loss of human life has become such a regular feature in the coverage of conflict that it often takes something beyond the ordinary to draw attention. The international condemnation following the destruction at Nimrud and the museum in Mosul showed the depth of feeling this action deliberately intended to stir up.
This attention-grabbing strategy mirrors the way that ISIS publicises its violence. While the objective of execution can be achieved through more conventional means, ISIS employs methods that will provoke outrage among the international community, thus attracting the attention they seek.
While the scale of destruction has been extensive, ISIS has also utilised the antiquities to finance its operations. Iraqi security officials discovered that ISIS, prior to seizing Mosul, had taken 36 million dollars from an area called al-Nabuk, famous for its 8,000 years old antiquities. UNESCO estimates that the international trade in conflict antiquities could be worth over 2 billion dollars.
In February 2015 the United Nations Security Council prohibited the trade in artefacts looted from Syria since 2011 and Iraq since 1990, but this has not stopped the smuggling. Despite its ideological framework, when potential funding avenues for ISIS emerge, it is just business.
Unless efforts are made to uproot ISIS’ ideology and to dismantle its claims of religious legitimacy, such destruction will continue. The group’s actions are not in keeping with Islamic tradition and instead demonstrate a deviation from the rich, historic legacy of previous generations of Muslims. The destruction wreaked by ISIS is an attack on the shared history of human civilisation, and as such is just as much an affront to Muslims as it is to the rest of the world.