By Shenaz Kermalli for Meftah.org –
There’s something to be said about how we respond to horrific images. Each video released by ISIS seems to get more intense in its vulgarity, more creative in its manipulation of hostages and more sophisticated in its audiovisual production. Prior to its most recently released video, where ISIS militants destroy ancient artefacts in the Mosul Museum that date from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires, I had watched several others, feeling disturbed to the point where I could think of little else over the following week. The clincher was the drawn-out footage of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh being set alight while locked in a cage. The horrifyingly recognizable Quranic verses playing as a background soundtrack left me numb with shock. And fury. How could anyone feel like they had the moral authority to treat other human beings like this? How could these sacred verses be so grossly misconstrued to justify such inhumane acts?
But there was something even more sinister – and immensely sad – about the Mosul Museum video. Verses were still being chanted in the background, but there was no blood this time, no flames, and no knives poised to slaughter. Heads were cut off, but they were heads of plaster statues.
The video begins with an ISIS representative speaking to the camera, condemning Assyrians and Akkadians (the empires that the artefacts date from) as polytheists, and justifying the destruction of the artefacts and statues. Then the militants are shown demolishing the artefacts with sledgehammers and drills. As reported by the Iraqi media, ISIS has also ransacked Mosul’s central public library, burning 100,000 rare books and manuscripts.
According to archaeologists, most if not all the statues in the Mosul museum were replicas. But the video still has sufficient shock effect. These are not individual lives that were being terminated, but icons of history – of humanity – and the institutions that sought to preserve them.
Zainab Bahraini, an art and archeology professor at Columbia University, has gone as far as to compare the destruction of the artefacts to a form of ethnic cleansing in a historical sense. “It’s a way of creating a terra nulla, if you will, a kind of an empty land that you can conquer and then claim that there was nothing there before,” she told Democracy Now. “It’s a general erasure and rewriting of the history of Mesopotamia.”
The significance of capturing large swathes of land in Iraq – in Mesopotamia – long considered the cradle of civilization – is hardly a concept that is lost on ISIS.
The careful effort ISIS took in filming and choosing to release this video also reflects the group’s deep understanding of the human psyche. Images of shock, horror, and destruction have always been effective in capturing our attention. But, perhaps, beheadings and immolations no longer hold the same power to shock people; such images have become ever so pervasive, as news circulation has become driven by these stories. Perhaps ISIS felt it had already done everything it possibly could to desecrate the human body – so it was time to move beyond it.
Institutions like libraries and museums may not wield economic or political power in society, but they do represent something even greater – a connection to our past. And given the global outcry against the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, there is no doubt that ISIS wanted, and expected, maximum public exposure for its action.
The other deeply unsettling part of the video is the ease and enthusiasm the militants display – presumably because they genuinely feel they have the moral authority and religious justification to destroy these ‘idols.’ The ISIS representative who speaks to the camera at the beginning justifies the obliteration of these cultural artefacts by citing Muhammad’s destruction of idols in Mecca. He says: “These statues and idols, these artefacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars.”
In reality, ISIS has looted and sold plenty of “idols” to pay for its guns and it would be imprudent to think they did not know the statues at the Mosul Museum were replicas. But it still begs the question: What makes ISIS’s actions different from what Muhammad did? And how do such actions fit into Islam’s essentially pluralistic and tolerant ethos?
Habiba Noor, a scholar of Islam and the Media who teaches at Trinity University in Texas explains that, while according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad did ‘bash idols’ to affirm monotheism, the ISIS video does not embody the spirit of his message for modern Muslims. “Bashing idols in today’s world is not only an assault on the museum but an assault on the liberal ideal of tolerance,” she says.
“The modern Muslim whose values have been as much influenced by liberal values as it has by the example of Muhammad cannot accept the destruction that is presented in this video,” Noor adds. “Some may ask how Muhammad could have destroyed idols at the Kaaba. ButMuhammad’s messagewas not that of liberalism and tolerance – it was about the belief in one God.”
Perhaps this, ultimately, is what makes this video so difficult. Muslims, after all, consistently find themselves affirming their commitment to tolerance and rejecting extremism. At the heart of ISIS is a group of zealots intent on making anyone in the world feel powerless. I shudder to think they could succeed.