The US and the IS have both tried to turn Iraq into a “blank slate” so they can recast the country in their own image, doing immeasurable damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage in the attempt.
The propaganda war between the Islamic State group (IS) and the US-led international coalition reached a new fever pitch last week.
The focus of this round of psychological war was Mosul, north of Iraq, where the IS released a propaganda video showing overzealous men destroying what appeared to be ancient artefacts dating back thousands of years. The justification? The artefacts were deemed idolatrous and Islam prohibits worship of anything other than God.
The world media’s condemnation, with few exceptions, focused solely on the horrendous destruction by the black-clad men of the IS. But it totally ignored the systematic cultural destruction that took place in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation. Highlighting one crime to cover up another is a propaganda strategy, especially during war, to stop people looking into the root cause of crimes.
Beyond the immediate media condemnation of IS’s criminal acts, let us recall how US-imposed democracy “protected” Iraqi cultural heritage when the Americans were in charge for 12 years.
Heritage protection is the responsibility of occupying powers under the Geneva Convention. But we all heard US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s “humanitarian” logic. A few days after the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003, Rumsfeld commented on the ongoing looting and destruction of the treasured artefacts of the Iraqi National Museum and other museums. “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
A total of 15,000 invaluable Mesopotamian artefacts disappeared from the national museum. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said. Stuff was not allowed to happen in two places, however, the Ministries of Oil and Interior. The disappearance of historic items is a common thread in 2003 across the country and in 2014 in Mosul, but the earlier destruction frenzy was left to the mob, whether these mobs were organised or not.
Under the watchful eyes of the occupiers, museums and libraries including the National library with its historical manuscripts, art galleries and universities, were all looted and burned down. Those acts were simply described either as collateral damage or unforeseen incidents.
Among the “unforeseen incidents” was the use of ancient heritage sites as US bases. Among them, on the lower Euphrates river, was Ur, the capital of the ancient civilisation of Sumer, (around 3000 BC) famous for its impressive ziggurat temple, which was used as a US military base for five years.
A little to the north, on the middle Euphrates, Babylon – for more than a millennium the key city of ancient Mesopotamia – was used as a base for around 6,000 troops.
“About 300,000 square metres of the surface of the site has been flattened… Sandbags were filled with precious archaeological fragments and 2,600 year old paving stones were crushed by tanks,” the British museum reported. Then Samara on the Tigris north of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbassid Caliphate a thousand years ago.
How did the US justify the irreparable damage? To “further defeat terrorists and insurgents,” a US military spokesman said.
The destruction of mosques, a communal space of cultural identity, followed. At least 100 mosques were destroyed in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, by US troops fighting against resistance to the occupation. Photos were circulated of black crosses painted on mosque walls and on copies of the Quran, and of soldiers dumping their waste inside mosques.
This destruction was met with silence except, again, for a few voices like Ralph Nader, who called upon President George W. Bush to stop destroying the mosques of Iraq. He argued that Bush’s reference to a “crusade” and his invocation of religious inspiration for the mission to overthrow the dictator and the invasion based on a platform of fabrications and deceptions, which was clearly illegal under international laws, and the demolition of Iraqi cities and towns, did nothing but enhance “recruitment of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda clones”.
Under the Geneva Convention, an occupying army should use all means within its power to protect the cultural heritage of an occupied country. The 2003 invasion ignored it. Another casualty was the impunity given by Bush to all his troops and contractors, which gave the green light by extension to the Iraqi government, before and after the withdrawal of the US forces in 2011.
It meant directly or indirectly continuing a mission of destruction. One aspect is the continued looting of archaeological sites left without protection once the age-old system by which local populations were trusted and paid by the government for protecting the sites had collapsed.
Political corruption has swallowed most of the Iraqi oil revenues, leaving nothing for cultural protection. Historical artefacts are sold in international markets. Significant monuments which adorned Baghdad’s streets for decades, such as the statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansour, the 8th century Abbasid caliph, the founder of the city of Baghdad, and the modern Liqa Monument by Alaa Bashir, were destroyed for reasons ranging from attaining historical revenge to applying the policy of uprooting everything that had been produced under the Baath regime.
The destruction of Mosul’s museum, therefore, was not an isolated case, but one of many. Rumsfeld’s justification might have been different than the IS group’s but the result is the same: To destroy a cultural heritage is to erase memory and above all collective identity. It is a necessary step in the process of manufacturing new identities, especially those that lies beyond existing national identities.
While the US original intention was to create and control an Iraq fit for its global free market, the IS vision is of an imagined virtuous life of the Prophet’s companions and austere puritanism. Both need a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Few Iraqis have been willing to subscribe to these two extremes, opting instead to retain their humanity.
The consequences is what Iraq lives under today: a corrupt sectarian government led by militias, and the sectarian IS, each in its way the product of a destructive occupation. The daily killing and manipulation of the media to foment fear in the long traumatised people have turned the hated ruthless US occupiers into either a protector or a saviour. That is why it is important to put these events into context, to see the overall picture, to reclaim some hope out of the heart of darkness.
Finding ways to shake off the hysterical atmosphere of the “war on terror” and its climate of fear of the other – the Islamist – while trying to resist the US takeover of the world does not mean becoming an IS apologist. Trying to understand is not to condone but to be better equipped to fight terrorism, no matter what clothes it wears.