ISIL & classicism: cultural cleansing & an end of history

The world in which we live in is not without it’s sorrows, its barbarisms. We stand amid the furthest reaches of culture and prosperity ever known to any epoch, yet there are those who would tear that down to impose their own, brutalising ideologies.

Islamic State/Islamic State in the Levant/Islamic State/Daish in Syria (hence:ISIL) are the proponent of cultural destruction of the moment. It is woven into their very being, their way of operating. What ISIL are doing augments the innovations of their predecessors—the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Osama bin Laden’s masterful, propagandistic usage of the cassette tape, the mass purges of nascent communist nations—twisting their actions into a new paradigm of mass terror in the age of spectacle of the internet. Their goal is not just the establishment of a caliphate, but of a ‘pure’ theocratic nation state. The drive to purity is, as at other points in the tragic history of humanity, the twentieth century in particular, the drive to purify and cleanse. It requires not just conquering the enemy, which for ISIL is all cultural and societal forms not concomitant with their brand of Sunnism. It necessitates the eradication of all threats, and needs the eradication therefore of history. Of course it helps the perpetrators of this attempt to end history that their actions are big and noticeable, the more so the better to spread terror as an effective weapon of war and of suppression.

This is what links the policy of massacring Yazidi populations, which has been identified by the United Nations as a crime of genocide because it expresses the intention of effect the destruction in whole of a ethnoreligious group, to the atrocious and purposeful destruction of ancient sites. Murder en mass is not the only way to effect sociocultural destruction, bulldozing or dynamiting bricks and mortar are another way. They are symbols of other and older ways of viewing the world, and difference cannot be tolerated under totalitarian ideologies.

Those of us in the academic community of ancient historians, archaeologists and classicists (though of course there are many others outside our little slice of society who feel likewise) are appalled by the threat posed to sites such as Nimrud, destroyed in April 2015, or Palmyra, the destruction of which seems to have just begun, and undoubtedly numerous other sites that do not make the news in such a large way. This can lead to claims of callousness and self-serving natures, a willingness to care more about these things that the masses killed or displaced or oppressed by these villains.

But the shock is, at least in part, because we in our little transnational community are finding ourselves the target. It is the same effect that has shaken the news industry over the last-decade-and-a-half as reporters have found themselves become targets of the stories they cover. The awful execution by beheading and subsequent exposure of the body of the 82-year old Keeper of Antiquities at Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, by ISIL agents this week really hit this home for many of us. Mr. al-Asaad was not a threat, was not a legitimate target under any definition. But was targeted under ISIL’s pernicious ideology of cultural extirpation. His crime was to have for several decades carried out a job that he loved, that he no doubt felt was his duty, that was a service to his country and to the cultural knowledge of humanity. He was killed for being who we are.

Pic from the Guardian (linked): "A 2002 picture of Khaled al-Asaad in front of a rare sarcophagus from Palmyra depicting two priests dating from the first century. Photograph: Marc Deville/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images"

I wrote this late this evening after hearing about the destruction of the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. Had to write it somehow. I was making a cup of tea and felt a deep seated seated need to type this out. I know a lot of this isn’t necessarily new, there’s a good, better-researched and more snappily-titled, article ‘A sledgehammer to civilisation: Islamic State’s war on culture’ on the Guardian website. But this here isn’t meant to be that. It’s from a place of rawness, and numbness, and incomprehension of the transition of who we are, what we love, into a target of war and eradication.

Update: Also see Dan Cruickshank's Civilisation Under Attack, which I've just started watching. Shared via Tom Holland who also features. And again, puts my raw thoughts forth in a somewhat more cogent manner. 


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