Before the world witnessed the full force of the Islamic State’s brutality in the video this past week showing American journalist James Foley’s murder, a different video revealed another kind of destruction the terrorist group is bent on inflicting.
A little more than a minute long, the earlier video focuses on a large tan building with a graceful minaret rising into the day’s haze. Ten seconds in, there’s a flash and a loud bang. The minaret and the building disappear in a plume of smoke. And just like that, the supposed final resting place of the prophet Jonah — he of the very large fish — was reduced to rubble.
The Islamic State has been consolidating its fanatical grip on its conquered lands. Besides the innumerable cruelties the militant group has meted out, such as the forced expulsions of Christians and other minorities, mass executions and the murder of religious leaders, it also has been destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage wherever its black banners flutter overhead.
Since taking over a chunk of northern and western Iraq in June, the Islamic State has systematically blown up heritage sites in and around Mosul, such as the centuries-old shrine to Seth (the third son of Adam and Eve), the Prophet Jirjis Mosque and the Awn al-Din Shrine. An hour’s drive west of Mosul, in the town of Tal Afar, it has demolished at least three Shiite shrines and three mosques.
Iraq’s biblical and historic sites have suffered enormous damage over the past decade of war. For instance, Baghdad’s National Museum and National Archives were famously looted after the U.S. invasion, while American troops in 2003-2004 used part of ancient Babylon as a heliport and fuel reservoir. But the difference is that the Islamic State makes a deliberate effort to wreck Iraq’s cultural spaces. The group even brags about it; a recent edition of its English-language online magazine, Dabiq, features a photo essay showing many places its fighters have destroyed in and around Nineveh province. And what the organization doesn’t bulldoze, it loots; the Sunday Times recently reported that the Islamic State is ransacking archaeological sites and extracting a “tax” on smugglers moving stolen artifacts.
The Islamic State’s appetite for destruction makes perfect sense. The group claims to adhere to the Salafist worldview; its members want to return Islam to what they perceive to be how Muhammad’s first generations of followers acted and behaved. Salafists explicitly reject post-7th-century “innovations” concerning behavior and Koranic interpretation — which, taken to the extreme, means all other forms of Islamic faith are corrupt and should be expunged. This ideology underpins the Islamic State’s justification for destroying everything of cultural consequence in Mosul and elsewhere.
Of course, this is hardly the first time radicals have delighted in systematically demolishing a nation’s heritage. The Taliban’s dynamiting of ancient statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001 is another tragic example. But a better analogy of cultural destruction on an industrial scale is China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Chinese youth, empowered by Mao Zedong’s vision of a permanent class struggle, formed Red Guard units across the country. They were then encouraged to stamp out the “four olds” from Chinese society: old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking.
The Red Guards destroyed temples, mosques, heritage sites, art and libraries, turning much of the country’s 5,000-year-old culture to ash. Only the intercession of high-ranking officials could stop the demolitions. For example, the reason Beijing’s Forbidden City was not greatly damaged is because Premier Zhou Enlai deployed Chinese troops to protect it.
Throughout history, we sometimes see small groups rise up to try to halt — or at least mitigate — the destruction. In Robert Edsel’s book “The Monuments Men” (and in George Clooney’s movie of the same title), a group of volunteers comes together to attempt to rescue priceless cultural artifacts from Nazi ravages during World War II.
Even today, there are those who seek to preserve civilization from within. When al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies gobbled up half of Mali in 2012, they conquered Timbuktu, a city of great Islamic scholarship. AQIM’s fanatics bulldozed several shrines in the city, and declared that certain centuries-old texts were unholy and must be put to the torch. But a few librarians and a security guard decided to risk their lives to move some 28,000 texts from harm’s way, until the Malian government and French paratroopers retook the city in early 2013.
President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that the United States “will continue to do what we must do to protect our people” against the Islamic State, and that “we will be vigilant, and we will be relentless.” But in addition to its campaign of airstrikes, the United States should quietly identify and assist those brave enough to try to stem the irredeemable cultural losses being inflicted in Islamic State-controlled territory. Sadly, it is hard to save immovable places such as mosques, monasteries, churches, tombs, shrines and archaeological sites — although residents have made efforts to protect a few places — but we should work with those willing to spirit whatever artifacts can be saved from the conflict zone. The administration should also work with the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkey and the European Union to house whatever collections can be saved from the Islamic State’s murderous fanatics. The group is quickly erasing Iraq’s cultural heritage, with little holding it back.
No doubt, it’s a bit callous to emphasize the rescue of artifacts and items rather than focus solely on the risks to long-suffering people. Yet for one reason or another, no political player that can bring overwhelming force to the table is effectively challenging the Islamic State — not the Sunni tribes (yet), not the government in Baghdad, not the Iranians and not the United States, despite our limited air campaign and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling the group “a threat to every stabilized country on Earth.” So, the Islamic State will tighten its grip on its territory and continue its pillaging of Iraq’s heritage.
In the Book of Jonah, God commands the reluctant prophet to journey to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to tell its king and its inhabitants of their coming destruction due to their wickedness. Modern Mosul is built over the bones of ancient Nineveh, and the wicked now rule the city again. We need brave, modern-day Monuments Men (and women) in Iraq to help stop the damage the Islamic State is inflicting every day upon the some of the first drafts of human civilization.
Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and a co-author of “Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al-Qaeda.” He wrote this for The Washington Post.