The destruction of historic monuments by ISIS hit me particularly hard as an archaeologist, as such I’m glad to see that it’s received the international media attention it deserves. The destruction of the past for ideological purposes is one that does not sit well with me yet this issue is rather more morally complex than what it might seem.
The vandalism of art and history is a valuable political tool; it sends a clear message towards intent and the willingness to change things. Vandalism itself etymologically comes from the idea of destroying art for political motives, so why are we so surprised and outraged when ISIS do it?
The destruction of the past has often been used to demonise groups; the Vandals destroying Carthage, the French revolution destroying the signs of the old elite, the Nazi’s burning books, are all powerful examples used to teach us “these people were bad, and tried to cover up the truth about history”. It’s a rather useful argument, yet for some reason we turn a blind eye to our own historical manipulations.
The Ziggurat of Ur is one of the largest and oldest palace sites in the Middle East, it’s towering walls show that the peoples of the region forged greatness out of their own will, and what of it now? During the Iraq war the US military decided it would make a rather fetching tank base. The famous city of Babylon is now home to several US helipads. The destruction of the past at the hands of the west goes unquestioned.
The destruction of the past in the name of commerce is rife; tombs in China ripped apart to build an IKEA, Mayan temples destroyed to make stone for road maintenance, countless other sites entirely desecrated in the pursuit of profit. It’s an old joke that the enemy of archaeology are the humans still alive, yet this could not be more the case. The British field system alone has destroyed more features than can even be told; imagine what our cities and towns destroy if our fields are an issue.
Furthermore there’s not just a physical destruction at the hands of the west but an ideological one. We hide and turn away from our colonial past, in some cases we even celebrate it; Columbus day, Black Peter, even the fact we still call our measuring system the Imperial system. We wave our Union Jacks and at the same time we don’t acknowledge our history of slavery and brutalism towards other corners of the globe. Who are we to condemn ISIS for the white washing of history when we are master craftsmen in denying the past?
We must come to terms with the past and the way in which we interact with it. We cannot be afraid to remove the symbols of oppression; for example the destruction of the statue of Saddam is not seen as an act of vandalism but rather of liberation, yet we must not blindly destroy these icons of ages past. We should not be afraid to storm the bastille’s of the modern world, destroy the iconographic holds of indoctrination and oppression.
Georges Bateille said ‘it is hard to explain this mass movement other than through the people’s animosity against the monuments that are its real masters’. As an anthropologist it’s important to recognise culture is embodied and enshrined within our buildings and our art and it’s symbolical nature plays a part in political systems.
But that’s not quite what ISIS is doing. ISIS are creating a new hierarchy, a new ideological future; where the past is destroyed rather than dismantled. ISIS destroys the past on the basis of heresy. I am not going to condemn the beliefs on heresy held by ISIS; it is not my place to condemn anyone’s religious beliefs and to do stuff smacks of a moral imperialism that may as well be akin to the fourth crusade.
It’s also not a helpful argument, to further increase the split between ISIS and the west, to create a moral and ethical dillema over acts we too are guilty. Instead we should aim to understand ISIS, we need to understand why they destroy monuments, why they see things as heresy, and we need to fight to protect the past. With this understanding we will learn how to better deter ISIS and how to better help our allies in the fight for both history and the future.
It seems awfully hypocritical to condemn ISIS for acts we commit on a grander scale; especially considering that condemnation of nonewestern morality is a long lasting legacy of imperialism. We are no longer the world policemen and instead we should take a look at our own views on the past. We underfund our museums, engineer our history GCSE’s to be little more than “kings and queens”, and galavant around the world destroying the past via commerce and war, who are we to talk about the destruction of the past?