Rundle: the complexities of Islamic State's cultural destruction

There is small good news around, but one hint of it came recently, with word that many of the artefacts smashed by the IS in Mosul were in fact replicas, of pieces being held elsewhere. That doesn’t make up for the destruction of the city of Nimrud (if that has occurred), or more to come, but it may somewhat take the edge off what one can only feel as a haunting experience. Because admit it, you are haunted by the destruction of these ancient sites and cities. Far more so than you are by the IS’s killings of religious minorities, gay men, ‘spies’ etc. You hate yourself for it perhaps, but there it is. Cities that survived four thousand years, centres for both the Indo-European and Semitic mega-cultures, the world that surrounds all of us, gone in an afternoon. This new wave of destruction has all sorts of reasons, and all sorts of possible conclusions, few of them good. But it is also being taken as another unique example of the IS’s barbarity. Distinctive of method it may be, but the issues of culture and destruction are far more complex than are apparent.

To the end of exploring that, take as an example a recent article by Chris Berg on The Drum, where he uses the broader term of totalitarianism to describe the IS, and identifying them with Nazism and Stalinism. Why? Because in attacking antiquities that are the common heritage of humanity (actually of the Indo-European and Semitic branches, but let that pass), the IS are attacking ‘ideas’, and especially the idea — or meta-idea — of an open-society. The piece is vastly better than Hartcher’s, as you’d bloody hope, but it takes part in the same circularity, identifying all destruction of the past as the preserve of such totalitarian governments. They are marked off from others by their determination to obliterate the past, and any alternative to their ideas.

One could add the Chinese cultural revolution to the list. But Berg doesn’t. Why? Well, it may be that this would remind us of something inconvenient: as much as the Red Guards destroyed artefacts and ancient buildings (before the totalitarian Zhou En-Lai introduced heritage protection), the ruthless destruction of China’s ancient cities has been much faster under the state capitalism that succeeded it, and in which the state has been no more than facilitator of capital. Same in Russia. Stalin and successors pulled down a few churches and cathedrals, but they kept and restored a few too, and much more besides. It’s under Putin that pre-twentieth century Moscow has been eviscerated, by corporations eager to build bland glass towers as close to the Kremlin as possible. Want more? How about the US? In Boston, many of the key sites of the beginning of the American Revolution vanished when a third of the old city centre was torn out for expressways, convention centres and soulless hotels — a process repeated across many of the great nineteenth century cities of the US.

What destroyed these common heritages? Capital using the power of law and the state to carve up something belonging to everyone, the established city of generations, with memory and history, and turn it into a series of abstract vacant plots. That is capital in its totalitarian mode, described so eloquently by Berg as something which annihilates difference to impose a single vision of how life should be. In Iraq that logic was extended from US culture to the occupation, with the National Museum of Iraq simply disdained as of no interest, and thus allowed to be stripped (not as badly as we had feared, but badly enough) in the chaos of war. US neoconservative culture simply couldn’t ‘see’ the museum, because its understanding of the meaning of the past (as different to us, rather than simply revealing what we hold in common) was reduced to zero by its own assumptions. Indeed, the only places in the West where destruction has been resisted has been where capitalism has been resisted — such as Rome, and Paris, where business was forced (and willing) to build its skyscrapers at a new city outside, called La Defense. In Sydney, it was the Communist BLF and Trotskyist groups that saved the city, where the shadowy corps that Berg produces ideology for via the IPA would have planed the place flat.

Why is capitalism so totalitarian with regard to the complex material web of other peoples’ lives? The answer of course is that destruction is at its root — and at the root of the classical liberal beliefs that Berg espouses in his simple division between liberal moderns and totalitarians. You’d have to be a poor classical liberal indeed to not know that your movement was born of analytic philosophy, which was born of English protestantism. And English protestanism was born of that ISIS figure avante la letter, Henry VIII — enthusiastic beheader, who put monasteries and the whole system of medieval learning to destruction, ploughed it under in many cases.

From Henry VIII came more open circulation of books and ideas based on physical destruction of the church’s power — and from such circulation came puritanism, the idea of the individual and the primacy of empirical evidence Part and parcel of all of that was destruction — largely of the Catholic heritage of England, which is why its churches are so bare, unlike their icon-stuffed counterparts. So too was the American revolution — and its crucial demand on the English that it should be allowed to advance westward and destroy Native American societies so that the ground could be planed flat and farms put in.

The echoes of that are everywhere, and they show the shared roots of a fundamentalist movement like the IS, and fundamentalist missions of evangelical Christianity and evangelical liberalism, the greatest being the invasion of Iraq. That sort of lethal destructiveness does not see itself because it celebrates the pluralism, within a narrow range, that it sometimes brings. But that is always preceded by a series of events that don’t look so different to what the IS is doing.

That’s the strange and disturbing thing about the ruthless acts of the IS. If a group were merely destroying cities without killing people, the public judgement would be that they were arseholes, but not radically evil in the way we think of them now. Yet deeper down, the horror of heritage destruction might still strike us as nihilistic in a way that is of a piece with executions. Indeed here, I’m harder line than Berg, who argues that the destruction of ancient sites like Nimrud doesn’t matter as much as the killing of people — which is humane, but is also an example of liberalism’s fatal inability to understand that meaning comes from shared life, extending into the past, rather than being contracted by present individuals as a ‘free’ act. Ultimately such a conception always ends in a nihilism — and thus the indifference to the destruction of a museum (founded by Gertrude Bell, the Western ‘creator’ of Iraq) that it would have been easy to protect. Indeed, I think such artefacts matter as much or more as people (up to a point), callous as that sounds, because without our heritage and a commitment to it, there is no ground to life, to meaning. The mega-destructiveness of the IS with regard to the central heritage of the Indo-European and Semitic cultures which populate two thirds of the world does give a greater cause for lethal force should a way be found to do so — dropping gas for example, in these largely unpopulated areas (in that respect I also disagree with m’colleague Jeff Sparrow, in his piece whose excellence is only mitigated by its descent into quaker-pacifist babble in the conclusion). Should other sites be threatened in the wave of ISIS and related movements in the future — the Pyramids for example — we will face some very ugly choices.

Who knows? Maybe when the sandstorms of war clear, we may find that much of this was propaganda. But that seems unlikely. And we might have to think very hard about what we owe to all humanity in the protection of a very, very limited amount of irreplaceable material. And that involves asking not only what we would be willing to do, but also willing to have done to us. Asking what should the world do about the destruction of the cities of the plain is also to ask what should be done about our wanton endangerment of the Great Barrier Reef? To what sort of acts are we ethically called in such cases — in ways that make clear that the pliant liberalism of legality’ is an excuse not a justification?

14 responses to “Rundle: the complexities of Islamic State's cultural destruction

  1. Guy, interesting article however I think you have left the ‘good guys’ off too lightly, whilst being critical of the Dictators. The Allies did a pretty complete jobs of destroying European architecture and artifacts during WW2 courtesy of area bombing by the RAF and combined bombing by the USAAF and RAF. The abbey at Monte Cassino and the destruction of Dresden being two of many that come to mind. Now Hollywood seeks to ‘whitewash’ these war crimes through films “based on a true story’ such as the recent “Monuments Men”.
    How prophetic that Churchill wrote “History is written by the Victors”

  2. Hold on, here’s another take that could have forestalled 4,000 words.

    Is it possible ISIS are a fake outfit cobbled together by Western interests in the ME? Why else would they keep making professionally produced videos almost designed to inflame Westerners and Western superpowers, and try to create another ‘Peasants Crusade’ to march on them? Why do the videos look fake, shot in front of green screens with scripts, with actors who don’t look the least bit stressed, and we see no beheadings, just some Hollywood special effects afterwards? Why were the beheaded journos and aid workers in the military 5 minutes before changing jobs? How did James Foley manage to get captured twice in 2 years, and by opposing sides? One day Assad’s forces, the next by ISIS. What happened in between? Shouldn’t he be more careful? Or will he disappear to South America for 6 years and resurface with a new identity?

    Why would you provoke superpowers to come after you if you were trying to set up a govt and lend it legitimacy? Why does Baghdadi wear a Rolex under his robes? Who are these guys? One day they’re Syrian ‘moderates’ recruited by John McCain against Assad (another Western geostrategic target) who somehow immediately turned into fundamentalist barbarians, then they’re ex-Baathists who were never particularly religious, so why desecrate statues now? And would be getting quite old. Then they’re Saudi Wahabbists who might behave like that given a chance, but well off their turf.

    And why does the Jordanian pilot in a cage look fake? The filming alone would have required 18 different camera positions and therefore multiple takes. Why’s the corpse a plastic special effect, and the flames added in digitally? How does Jordan know it killed 7,000 fighters? WTH? Always Western friendly, with constricted borders, have they been promised a carve-up of some of Syria and Iraq for their cooperation?

    And then why did the Iraqi army just drop its arms and run at the first uprising, and by a much smaller force? After 8 years of training by Western forces. You are trained to destroy your materiel if overrun or retreating, not hand it over gladly.

    Why do we keep getting high quality video feeds, photos and over-produced videos from ‘barbarians’? Why ar they so well-equipped in general? How did they rise up so quickly and effortlessly from nowhere, where the US had no idea of their existence until they were fully ready to go, even with US intelligence everywhere in the region?

    Why are ISIS nearly always masked to a ridiculous extent? The PLO never used to do that.

    Then why were ‘IS buildings’ targeted for reprisals abandoned 2 weeks earlier and empty at the time of the ‘missions’? Why would Tony Abbott send some peashooter F18 fighters all that way to do minimal damage? Why was there a report the F18s ran a mission from a UAE airstrip to northern Iraq which distance would have required 5 in-flight refuels per plane? Why is Tony Abbott getting behind war and generic Muslim bashing and saying nothing about peace, tolerance, level heads, etc domestically? Why has the Murdoch press been running anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stories almost every day in its papers for over a year now, and always in the first 5 pages, the ones guaranteed to be read? Including associating Man Monis with ISIS graphically and incorrectly. (And why did Monis suddenly convert from Shia to Sunni 3 days earlier? Why was he in Australia at all when the Iranian govt had long told the Australian govt he was a criminal, even sending over a large dossier? Was he waiting in the wings as an ASIO asset or patsy when needed after the false flag events of 2001? Why did the Lindt cafe siege last 16 hrs, when there were double unlocked doors in the store room, then Monis came all the way out to chase escapees, and could have been picked off easily by body armour wearing SWATs. Why were no demands met at all? Why was a prominent and respected Muslim not allowed to negotiate with Monis although he claims he could have talked him out? Strikes me they wanted to ensure a couple of fatalities to incite the population. Why kill the store manager in cold blood at the end? Cui bono?)

    Why did Charlie Hebdo and Copenhagen seem like false flag operations using professionals?

    So who benefits if Muslims are hated in the West, AND back in the ME? General Wesley Clark for some reason spoke of a plan right after 9/11 for the US to topple the govts of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia. They’re over halfway through that list now, achieving it by funding nebulous and mysterious rebels here and there.

    Why does it all seem so suspicious and almost obviously contrived? Just sayin’. Or askin’.

  3. One thing that makes old Harry VIII like the modern right wing is that when he dissolved, or rather stole the monasteries he also removed the only help the poor, pilgrims and ordinary travellers could rely on. The monasteries gave succour, the new earls and dukes gave starvation. Funny how I was taught what a great king he was. It is also worth remembering that the Crusades killed a vast number of Christians and along with Venetian treachery helped bring about the fall of Constantinople. We have made a balls of middle east policy for a long time.

  4. Ian
    I didnt say Trotskyist groups were involved in the Green Bans. I said they were involved in fighting for sydney heritage – which they were, in groups such as that led by Nick Origlass and others, mounting community struggles against road building etc

    1. Nick was a good bloke and a trotskyist group in himself admittedly, and yes he did put up a good fight on the expressway horrors but on that basis there were probably ten times more vegans than trotskyists, maybe you should give credit to veganism? Honestly, it was the BLs who overwhelmingly were responsible, they were CPA, left Labor, a touch of anarchist even, but it is rewriting history for other politico/religfious cults to now claim they did it. They didn’t.

  5. Thank heaven there is someone who sees just how mottled the modern landscape is, who resists the violence of summation in black and white, and insists instead that we stop and consider the complexity of our own prejudices. I don’t know if every detail is correct–it’s damn difficult to do, frankly, on deadline (as no one who has ever had to do it can begin to appreciate)–but the overall tone is precisely what is needed.

  6. Out of interest during the Venetian Ottoman War of 1689 the Parthenon suffered its worst when the Venetians shot a cannon ball through it. Prior to that it was the Christian destruction and desecration of the Parthenon and many of Greece’s ancient per-Christian sites which goes generally unnoticed by archeologists.

  7. The destruction of England’s distinct medieval ecclesiastical decorations did not come from Henry VIII – he merely looted the real estate. It was army and followers of Thomas Cromwell’s great-nephew, Oliver Cromwell, that laid waste to the stained glass, statuary and the rest. Every now and then a fragment of a statue, a painted tile or some stained glass is revealed so that we get a sense of the lost visual culture.

  8. Whilst the Quran does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures, aniconism (the avoidance of representational artwork depicting living creatures) is widely prevalent in Islam. This adherence is however not peculiar just to Islam.

    Judaism as a religion boasting just one true god, was keen to avoid any link to what it viewed as the idolatry of its polytheist neighbours. Graven Images in particular were particularly frowned upon as being false gods and their prohibition counts as the second of the Ten Commandments. Over time this injunction against depictions has waxed and waned. Sculpture in particular was prohibited but at times two dimensional art has also been banned from representing people.

    The early Christian Church flowing as it did from a Judaic source also disapproved of any hint of idolatry at first. When Constantine started the process of Christianising the Roman Empire, images and sculptures depicting the ancient roman deities were destroyed by zealous groups of Christians. However quite quickly these representations were replaced by portraits of Christ and the saints. These Icons borrowed heavily from Roman Imperial imagery.

    In the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Iconography became widespread but as ever there were some who strongly disapproved of the use or misuse of these images, considering the attempt to make a “lifeless image” was an affront to the creator. This led to periods of Iconoclasm, where instead of veneration, Icons were seen as blasphemous and were destroyed. Interestingly in the 6th and 7th centuries this Byzantine Iconoclasm was paralleled in Judaism. Several synagogues in the West Bank at this time removed any figurative elements from their floor mosaics leaving just inanimate symbols instead.

    It is probably no coincidence that this conflict over images being either holy or blasphemous occurred just as Islam was beginning. Indeed some believe that a young Muhammad would have been exposed to the concept of aniconism whilst accompanying his uncle on mercantile journeys to Syria.

    The antagonism to representational art and in particular to religious images appears to become more pronounced during times of religious turmoil and zealotry.

    The rise of Protestant reformers in the 16th century, invoking the prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images, led to iconoclastic riots throughout Europe as opposition to the Catholic Church grew.

    The Puritans extolled the virtues of plainness and simplicity, stripping away the formalities, ornamentation and tradition which they considered to have corrupted the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

    The Wahhabist doctrine driving Islamic State, like all it’s fanatical predecessors considers itself a pure representation of Allah’s will and is violently opposed to all others it sees as corrupt. This is probably part if its attraction to many young Muslims, simplicity, no doubts as the righteousness of their cause and an opportunity to smash the old system and rebuild a new purer society.

  9. It is an interesting argument but it does little to diminish the evil of IS. A capitalist destroying a 19th century dilapidated building does not compare to destroying buildings and artefacts that are thousands of years old. The other difference is that IS does not do this to create some new architectural wonder in its place; it does it because it does not accept any culture outside of its own extremely narrow confines and does so with joy. Capitalists are not inherently opposed to culture; that is why the Renaissance flourished as it was sponsored by wealthy patrons. At least one can negotiate with people motivated by profit but rarely with people motivated by prophet.

  10. Yes, Old Moscow got planed flat and glass towers went up, no argument there, and god only knows what went under water when the Three Gorges Dam went up. Now tell us what this islamic crowd intend to put up in Nimrud.

  11. Seems so apposite to this week’s debates about ‘lifestyle choices’, and what is essentially about the continuation of an ancient traditional culture in our own backyard.

    Ancient cultures also add to our humanity in the same way that ancient buildings do, or supremely ancient reefs. The fact that those communities can exist enlarges my life, somehow, just knowing that they can live in this world, and even if it costs me a few dollars per year to enable that to happen, it seems such a small cost.

    Perhaps we can think about the destruction happening in our own backyard also.

  12. There were absolutely no trotskyist groups involved in the BLF or green ban and resident action movement of the 70s, where on earth did you get that complete piece of fiction from? In fact they either ignored it or attacked it as somesort of class collaboration and proof of the ideological corruption of the communist blah blah blah carrying on as they always uselessly do.

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