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What Islamic State gains by destroying antiquities in Iraq

February 27, 2015 at 6:40 PM EST
In a violent rampage through a museum in Mosul, Islamic State militants knocked statues to the floor, using sledgehammers and even a jackhammer to reduce ancient artifacts and some replicas -- representing idols that past cultures worshipped -- to rubble. Bernard Haykel of Princeton University and Michael Danti of Boston University join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the significance of the latest video.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: When it comes to the battle against the Islamic State, much of the world’s attention is

focused, of course, on the murders and the mayhem it has wrought. But there have also been a series of attacks on antiquities and cultural heritage.

And, today, there’s both condemnation and sadness over a video showing what happened this week in Northern Iraq.

Here’s Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the video, Islamic State militants knock statues to the floor, take sledgehammers to centuries-old artifacts, even employ a jackhammer to reduce a work to rubble. Released through social media Thursday, the five-minute video uses music and slow motion to dramatize the destruction at Northern Iraq’s Mosul Museum.

MAN (through translator): To all Muslims, these statues are idols of the people in previous centuries which were worshipped other than God. God almighty says: “And we sent a messenger to you just to reveal that no God but I, so worship me.”

The prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Mosul Museum reportedly housed more than 170 genuine antiquities. Others were replicas, and it’s unclear how many original works were destroyed.

But the act fits into a broader campaign by the Islamic State, to brazenly and publicly destroy cultural relics in the name of religious purity. Since its incursion into Northern Iraq last summer, the group has laid waste to libraries, temples and shrines. And the region now under its control contains nearly 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites.

In Paris today, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called this newest act in Mosul a — quote — “war crime” that the world must punish. but she added this:

IRINA BOKOVA, Director-General, UNESCO: I know that there is not much that we can do in order to go there on the site. UNESCO doesn’t have an army. UNESCO doesn’t have blue helmets or anything else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, in war-torn Syria, satellite images show extensive looting of archaeological sites for relics reportedly sold on the black market to finance Islamic State operations.

Today, UNESCO announced the creation of a global coalition against the trafficking of illegal objects, to meet in the coming weeks.

For more now on the losses and the motives of the militants, we turn to Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near East studies at Princeton University and Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University, part of a team documenting what is happening to cultural sites in Syria and Iraq.

And let me start with you, Michael Danti.

I know experts have been looking at this video to authenticate the museum, to try to determine the extent of the damage. What do we know so far?

MICHAEL DANTI, Professor of Archaeology, Boston University: We know that some of the objects that we are seeing are plaster casts or restorations, but the majority of what we’re looking at, both at the site of Nineveh and in the Mosul Museum, is sculpture from antiquity, from — you’re seeing material from the site of Hatra, which is the ancient city of Hadr, and material that comes from the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh from the first millennium B.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how important a collection is this?  What context — put some context to these works.

MICHAEL DANTI: The material from Hatra is really unparalleled in art history. There’s very little material outside the Mosul Museum.

In terms of the sculpture that we see from the Assyrian Empire, a large amount of that material graces the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. But the works that we’re seeing that remained in Mosul were the hard work of Iraqi archaeologists and museum professionals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bernard Haykel, what — why the focus on art and antiquities, and who is — who’s the intended audience?

BERNARD HAYKEL, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University: Well, the Islamic State presents itself as a puritanical movement, claiming to be the authentic version of Islam. And part of their presentation of this version of Islam has to do with the smashing of idols, what we call iconoclasm.

And they’re to appeal to — it’s a major P.R. kind of campaign to present themselves as the real Muslims. Now, it should be underscored that most Muslims don’t share their views at all. And in fact, you know, Islamic art has had a lot of figural representation, even of the prophet, but their version of Islam is very literal and it’s very radical. And they are trying to present that as the real thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the packaging of a video, you’re putting in the category of public relations, of reaching out and saying, here’s what we can do?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes, and it’s propaganda. It’s trying to appeal to — much of what they do is trying to appeal to young people to bring about recruits and saying that, we adhere very closely to the injunctions of Islamic law, one of which is to command good and forbid wrong, and these statues are considered idols.

Of course, Islamic law says that idols that are not worshiped need not be destroyed, and none of these statues were being worshiped. So it is a gratuitous and barbaric act, frankly, but one that is intended to appeal to an audience that is looking for some sort of authenticity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael Danti, you’re nodding your head. You have been watching this unfold at a number of sites in Syria and Iraq.

Are there fears about more?  What steps are or can be taken at this point?

MICHAEL DANTI: During the conflict, there obviously is very little that we can do.

To try to prevent these sorts of things, you you’re have to take measures before the outbreaks of conflicts. Since July of last year, we have seen scores of these sorts of destructions. The main targets have been Shia and Sufi sites in Syria and Iraq.

And, in reality, ancient material culture has not really been the preferred target of Islamic State.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, flesh that out a little bit. So there are patterns you see?

MICHAEL DANTI: Yes, there’s definitely a pattern to target Shia and Sufi material culture, primarily shrines, mosques and tombs.

The hardest-hit area has been Aleppo governorate in the north of Syria in the Deir el-Zour area. And this is a way to try to increase sectarian tensions and proliferate the conflict. It also is a cold, calculated form of psychological warfare.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and Bernard Haykel, this does gets the world’s attention. Here we are talking about it, although I must say we felt we had to. There was no way not to.

But does that proliferate?  Do you expect more to happen?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Absolutely.

I mean, I think this is a group that is determined to attract as much media attention as possible and to shock and to — because they see this as a form of humiliating the enemy, the enemy being all people they disagree with, but mainly the unbelievers. And Sufis and Shias and Muslims who disagree with them are considered unbelievers.

So, they are desperate for this kind of attention and shock value.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Michael Danti, just very briefly on the question of the looting that continues, reports about the sale of those antiquities for — to finance some of these operations, do we know much about that at this point?

MICHAEL DANTI: We know that material is making it to Lebanon and Turkey, on its way to international markets. What’s difficult to fill in are the dollar values and the exact belligerents in the conflict that are involved in the looting and the trafficking. But we do have good in-country information that almost everyone in the Syria-Iraq conflict is looting to some extent

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Danti, Bernard Haykel, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL DANTI: Thank you.

BERNARD HAYKEL: Thank you.

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