Why is ISIS destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage?

In recent months ISIS has taken to destroying priceless architecture and antiquities in northern Iraq. Since declaring a “caliphate” in June 2014 ISIS has targeted every ethno-sectarian group and even punished Sunnis who do not conform to its version of Islam.

The actions of ISIS, both brutal and barbaric, are deliberate and calculated. The group is trying to make permanent demographic changes in northwestern Iraq to ensure an environment only hospitable for its caliphate and those who believe in it.

The ethnic cleansing campaign began last summer with the forced exodus of minority groups from their villages and towns. This saw hundreds of thousands of people displaced to the Kurdistan region and central and southern Iraq. In some areas populations could not get out in time and ISIS captured scores of people. Those who fought back were executed, elderly men and women were left to die slowly, women were taken as slaves, and young boys and girls were moved to other areas where they were to be trained as “cubs” of the caliphate.

This breaking up of communities aimed to crush any resistance from other areas, prevent women from being integrated back into their families due to the dishonor stigma in Middle Eastern cultures where women have been raped, and indoctrinate a new army of young soldiers to fight their communities in the future.

Once the areas were depopulated the homes were marked with letters denoting the ethno-religious identity of the owners and the possessions looted or sold off. Then the homes themselves were either assigned to various commanders as their new residence or auctioned off to bidders. In some cases homes were destroyed if they belonged to active anti-ISIS leaders.

This has the effect of preventing quick resettlement in these areas if ISIS is defeated and the original inhabitants return. It also means there are no longer mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhoods or that Arab and Turkmen live next to each other.

In fact, unless these communities return, the next generations will have no experience of the “other” and so will not be tolerant or respectful, as ISIS wants.

Next came the churches and mosques that were blown up despite some being hundreds and thousands of years old, left intact during the times of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The religious landscape of northern Iraq was changed. No longer was it multiconfessional; it was homogenous and adhered to the extremist version of Islam that ISIS propagated.

Then came the graves that proved how these areas had always been settled by a particular community, with names and dates on tombstones that were clear to see. Sledgehammers and bulldozers were used to level these and now all trace of these graves has been wiped out.

Libraries that housed priceless manuscripts, and works detailing the thousands years heritage of Mosul and other towns were burned to the ground. Even books of Islamic studies were not spared, as they contained a version of Islam that ISIS rejects. This colossal damage to local culture was meant to prevent education and learning, to maintain a distance between the caliphate and what these areas were like before. It was an attack on memory, society and civilization all at once.

Attacks on antiquities were perhaps the most publicized of these actions, with videos of statues being demolished in the Mosul museum circulating widely on social media. Strongly condemned by UNESCO and other organizations, these actions were meant to appeal to Muslims content with or not offended by the demolishing of the Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan in 2001.

But they were also meant to turn these areas into places of little value for foreigners and government agencies. In that way the outside world would have no interest in having a presence there, and ISIS could continue to find support in these areas and colonize them again should they be pushed out.

Perhaps the most tragic of all in this campaign was that ISIS relied on neighbors of those it attacked to carry out this ethnic cleansing. Several displaced persons interviewed by NGOs and human rights organizations stated that it was their neighbors who turned on them and forced them out, not foreign jihadis. This element was perhaps the most destructive, for if buildings can be rebuilt, ties and bonds broken by blood cannot.

The future looks bleak for the various ethno-religious groups that were settled in northern Iraq, particularly Christians who also face being forced out from other countries. The Iraqi authorities, with the aid of the international community, must reverse each of these steps that ISIS has taken to ethnically cleanse northern Iraq. Otherwise ISIS will have achieved its aim of making territories it seized permanently hospitable to it.

Sajad Jiyad is an analyst based at the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad and can be followed on Twitter @SajadJiyad. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2015, on page 7.




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