July 29, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Historic Destruction

• The Islamic State’s destruction of Mosul’s Nabi Yunis Mosque that contained the tomb of Jonah is another incident in an accelerating trend of extremists destroying rather than appropriating cultural sites from Afghanistan to Mali to Iraq

• In the past, conquerors would occupy and convert significant buildings, with treasures such as Hagia Sofia and the Toledo libraries surviving to the present day; today’s extremists would destroy those places

• The international community, witnessing constant crises, has such “outrage fatigue” that it barely reacts to the historic destruction in Iraq and Syria; contrast this with the immense public outrage over the Afghan Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in March 2001

• More so than the destruction of the economy and public infrastructure, the ripping of the cultural fabric of Iraq and Syria will prove hardest to mend; however, it might also provide the spark for increased local opposition to IS.

What is happening in portions of Iraq (and Syria for that matter) is the destruction of history and culture by a group obsessed with the former and possessing none of the latter.

The Islamic State’s destruction of the Nabi Yunis Mosque in Mosul, over the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, is more than an act of wanton stupidity and cruelty. It is also the continuation of a trend in which violent extremist groups—who despite their differences all share a penchant for destruction—don’t seek to proclaim that now “they are here” but rather that everyone else “was never here.” From Afghanistan to Mali to Syria and Iraq, takfiri extremists have tried not so much to establish their superiority as the invisibility of those they deem as unbelievers or apostates.

The Islamic State (IS) has destroyed over 30 historic sites in northern Iraq since early June, and destroyed dozens of churches as well as Shi’a religious halls known as hussainiya. Among these are the mosques of Imam Yahya Abu al-Qasim, Nabi Shayt (the Prophet Seth), and the aforementioned of Nabi Yunis, or the Prophet Jonah. All of these predate Saint Peter’s Basilica or the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and are rare links to religious antiquity. Such destruction is not only a regional loss but a crime against history. Moreover, the persecution and consequent expulsion of Christians and other minorities is ripping the historic and cultural fabric of Iraq. And yet the reaction of a weary international community has been muted. This is unfortunate in that of history’s “conquering armies,” IS would be among the weakest and easiest to dislodge before it can do further destruction.

Contrast what is happening in Iraq with what was happening in Turkey in 1453. For almost a thousand years, the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (Istanbul) was a cathedral for the eastern Orthodox Christian church. When the Ottomans took over, they didn’t destroy the church but rather made it a mosque. While the Ottomans’ reasoning was not entirely charitable (after all, construction of grand buildings was and is an extremely costly endeavor; better to appropriate one instead), the result was the survival of the Hagia Sofia. In 1085, Christians retook the Spanish city of Toledo but didn’t raze the Arabic libraries, but rather translated them. As a result, the world still has Toledo, a city with a significant Christian, Muslim, and Jewish past still visible in its architecture and culture.

In March 2001, the Taliban announced they intended to destroy the two ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. There was an enormous international outcry, one that had no impact on the outcome, as the Taliban didn’t care about international opinion and blew up both statues. But the outcry was meaningful in one aspect: some treasures belong to history and to future generations, which is the whole point of a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage designation. Public pressure in one area might manifest itself in other areas, such as economic and trade pressure. However, in the case of IS, only military pressure will work. Yet while there has been some condemnation (from the Arab League to the Vatican), there hasn’t been a massive outcry. This stems in part because of “outrage fatigue” from an international community confronting atrocity after atrocity but also because the destruction seems, however insane, as par for the course in the region. An attack on Notre Dame would be met with overwhelming outrage and action but the destruction of more ancient sites in Iraq is met with weary shrugs, all the while the world loses more of its invaluable historical sites.

This is the true danger of persistent conflict: making the unacceptable somehow seem acceptable. The situation in Iraq and Syria is now such that an extremist group has taken over lands containing historic sites valuable beyond all measure, undertaking a campaign of destruction and expulsion of religious and ethnic minorities, while the Iraqi government continues its fatal paralysis and the attention of the international community moves from crisis to crisis. Despite its claim to honor history, groups like IS deeply fear it and so they seek to re-write it. The question is not in their intentions but in the international community’s resolve.


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