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Outrage: ‘Cultural genocide is a crime, but we can’t save monuments and not people’

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Until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and their culture are interlinked, there will be no resolution to the continuing attacks on both 

Images have always been difficult for the People of the Book: Islam, Judaism and Christianity have all at some stage asserted iconoclastic tendencies, destroying images and sacred spaces in the process. They share, at root, the myth of Moses and the Golden Calf, the prohibition of idols. But how this has been exercised through history has varied and iconoclasm has rarely been a matter of faith alone, with more worldly circumstances governing attitudes, whether the Byzantine era’s Quarrel of the Images or, today, the emergence of so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh and its delight in destruction.

Before he was killed in a US air strike in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ‘emir’ of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had made a habit of escalating violence between Shia and Sunni using the bombing of Iraqi mosques such as that at the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest in Shia Islam, to provoke sectarian outrage. Since his death, al-Zarqawi’s Sunni organisation has morphed into Daesh.

Daesh has inherited the Taliban and al-Zarqawi’s brutal way with heritage, demonstrating its keen understanding of the uses and abuses of architecture. The destruction of cultural sites can serve many purposes: terror, propaganda, conquest, genocide. In the past decade the cultural catastrophe that results when built heritage is targeted for destruction in conflicts has intensified. Across the Islamic world in particular, the tactics favoured by al-Zarqawi have spiralled out of control across Syria and Iraq and across the countries that went through the Arab Spring.

‘Images have always been difficult for the People of the Book: Islam, Judaism and Christianity have all at some stage asserted iconoclastic tendencies, destroying images and sacred spaces in the process’

But while this destruction is informed superficially by the iconoclastic religious doctrine that has its origins in puritan Saudi Wahhabism that, for example, forbids structures higher than a hand height above a grave, it is essentially political in nature, an ideology that challenges the post-colonial settlement – the illogical, externally imposed national boundaries and the corrupt, repressive regimes backed by the West and Russia that have followed. Such regimes have forced a Western capitalist model on their people – only without liberal freedoms and with brutality, corruption and hopeless poverty.

In this latest Islamic interpretation, iconoclasm is about forging a new Islamic identity that rejects the hegemony of the West. This attitude is encapsulated by Nigeria’s Boko Haram, translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ or ‘Westernisation is sacrilege’. In their failure, the Arab Spring revolutions have helped to create the vacuum that such ideas rushed to fill. And their failure was, in part, predicated by a history of Western governments colluding with postwar dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries to eliminate secular left oppositions in various countries. Radical Islam is what is left to people who suffer – the heart of a heartless world.

From across the Maghreb to Pakistan and beyond, identities are being asserted that are hostile to churches, Shia shrines, Sufi tombs, cemeteries, secular archaeology, museums or world heritage sites. Scholars have been shot by snipers, site custodians beheaded by militants. The response in the West has been to assert the universal value of cultures – a shared past. But to some anti-Western Islamists, the idea of a universal heritage as espoused by Western museums and UNESCO is an externally imposed notion: in 2001, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar teased the West that it idolised the Bamiyan Buddhas and cared about them more than it did about the Afghan people suffering in poverty.

Why should extreme Islamists – or indeed anyone – be expected to trust in such universalism when the West’s Enlightenment project has only brought subjugation to their regions?

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Decapitated sculptures in the entry porch of Lyon Cathedral

‘In this latest Islamic interpretation, iconoclasm is about forging a new Islamic identity that rejects the hegemony of the West’

How to respond? The latest bout of cultural destruction has led to much hand-wringing, UN resolutions, inflammatory suggestions of armed intervention to protect historic sites and deluded proposals to fly out valuable artefacts for safekeeping in the great museum storehouses of New York, London and Paris, leaving persecuted populations behind to suffer the horrors of war or drown in the Mediterranean.

Here, however, Daesh – for all its slickly horrifying videos of stonings, immolations and hammer drills taken to Assyrian lamassu – is unwittingly serving the long-term interests of would-be protectors of heritage and the guardians of human rights because the links between the two are now being made once more. In theory, the prosecution of cultural destruction should, to some degree, have been a deterrent. Unfortunately, international law is not fit for purpose: it is inadequate to deal with non-state protagonists, and separates out cultural crimes from crimes against humanity. Cultural genocide – the erasure of a people by erasing their group identity so that they cease to exist as a group rather than through mass murder – is still not accepted as genocidal under international law.

 ‘Why should extreme Islamists – or indeed anyone – be expected to trust in such universalism when the West’s Enlightenment project has only brought subjugation to their regions?’

It need not have been this way. Raphael Lemkin, who drew up the original concept of genocide as partially embodied in the Genocide Convention, was convinced that genocide was made up of both barbarity (attacks on people) and vandalism (attacks on culture as the expression of a people’s genius). Vandalism, he wrote, ‘means the destruction of the cultural pattern of a group, such as the language, the traditions, the monuments, archives, libraries, churches. In brief: the shrines of the soul of a nation’. As eventually adopted by the UN, however, the Convention omitted Lemkin’s concept of cultural vandalism as genocide. Only attacks on the human body – mass murder, principally – were accepted as genocide. This was because of Cold War diplomatic hostilities and the fear among new world governments that their indigenous peoples (and former slaves) could apply the law against their own governments: Realpolitik won and it pervades.

If we really want to do something about Daesh’s destruction of monuments, we need to honour Lemkin’s efforts and make cultural genocide a crime. But we should reject any idea of intervening in a conflict simply to save monuments, while leaving the descendants of their creators to suffer. In some ways Mullah Omar was correct in his criticism – until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and their culture are interlinked, there will be no resolution to the continuing attacks on both.