ISIS’s Attempt to Erase History

Staff writer Max Fertik ’19 explores ISIS’s tactics by targeting cultural and historical sites in the Middle East. 

In 2016, the U.S. continues to wage its war against ISIS, an effort that still struggles to be solved with concrete foreign policies. Our Presidential candidates throw around the terrorist organization’s name like pizza dough, assuming that ISIS’s fate and its actions can be easily molded by the U.S.

Despite this naïveté, Associated Press says that the ISIS’s social media output, an integral component of their strategy, has significantly gone down from 700 items in August 2015 to 200 this past August. This is its lowest point yet. Meanwhile, ISIS has also been driven out of nearly half of the Iraqi territory that it once occupied. Associated Press even state sthat recently ISIS has “started to look less like a religious state with a future and more like an eroding terrorist army .”

Nonetheless, beginning in late 2014, ISIS sparked a rampant campaign against not only non-Muslims and non-extremists but against their own heritage. In their burning desire to rid the world of anything less than radical, the group enacted an operation known as “Kata’ib Kaswiyya” (or the settlement battalion) to essentially delete any history of these non-fundamentalist groups by demolishing any artifacts or ruins Pagan, Jewish, Christian and even Muslim. It appears that their logic here in carrying out this operation, aside from attention-grabbing propaganda, is to essentially wipe history clean of cultures that were less agreeable with ISIS ideals in order initiate their own place in history. They will also plan to sell many of these artifacts on underground markets to fund other activities.

The most notable victim of this campaign was Temple of Baalshamin located in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Once a magnificent symbol of growth and prosperity and one of the region’s best preserved ruins, the city now lies a pile of dust, seized by ISIS only a week earlier. The Islamic State also took it upon themselves to sledge hammer half a dozen ancient statues and destroy two priceless, historic tombs in Palmyra. These members felt that these artifacts represented a Pagan time before Islam and must be demolished in order to further their plan to diminish ethnic diversity.

In addition to Palmyra, the Islamic State has destroyed several Shiite mosques and shrines in the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tal Afar and as many as six mosques in the Northern city of Nineveh. Also in Mosul, the group destroyed an enormous collection of artifacts, books and incinerated the Sunni Muslim library itself at the University of Mosul. They also felled countless Assyrian gypsum statues at the Mosul Museum (famously released on video) and almost fully destroyed every single church in the Iraqi city. These are not nearly all of the temples, mosques, artifacts, and monuments demolished in the name of ISIS but merely the most jarring and massive in effect.

It is a big undertaking to try to keep track of the enormous amount of religious items and structures that have been destroyed by this fundamentalist group in the past few years. The Monuments Men, a film that was released coincidentally the same year that Palmyra was ravaged, does a good job encapsulating this mentality possessed by ISIS. While the film is actually about Nazis,  it allows one to draw parallels between ISIS’s current actions and those of the Nazi. Both groups south to destroy history in order to rewrite it and make profit off the artifacts it confiscated. One quote during the movie delivered George Clooney particularly frames this logic: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.”

The quote has the ability to reveal what ISIS may have originally thought when they created Kata’ib Kaswiyya. However, the sentiments of the last part of the quote may not be true the way ISIS hoped for it to be. History cannot be erased, though its artifacts can be destroyed. Despite the fact that it is truly heartbreaking to lose such items so rich in culture that help us envision a time before, the history and culture of a people cannot die. Without the literal and tangible artifacts, people can bring their histories and cultures back to life through oral and written tradition.

In retrospect, UNESCO must continue their collaboration with the Syrian government to keep these cultural sites more protected and free from the debauchery of such extremists . We must consider that though these acts of terrorism are not violent in the way that killings and bombings are, the destruction of cultural sites is detrimental. However, we cannot allow history to be erased that easily, especially at the hands of a dangerous group like ISIS.

By: Max Fertik ’19

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