Save Iraqi culture from ruin

The international community must act to save Iraq’s ancient cultural sites, argues

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

In the latest news from Iraq, the Iraqi military have retaken Nimrud, a historical and archaeological goldmine. This is more significant given that Nimrud was where ISIS began attacking archaeological buildings with Sunni descent, leading to further attacks against Sunni culture. Nimrud is incredibly important to Sunni-Iraqi culture as it was part of the Assyrian empire, which crossed the Middle East including Turkey and Egypt.

As part of the ISIS culture of defacing and destroying any culture but their own, they decided to obliterate Nimrud with hammers and modern bulldozers, annihilating Sunni culture along with their past. It was a gesture which suggested that ISIS were the future, while Sunnis were the past and needed to be forgotten about. ISIS are using it as protection; Western liberal forces are less likely to attack them as they would be scared of damaging the local population’s culture and losing ‘hearts and minds’ as they always say in those situations.

This policy of destruction of culture was filmed and seen around the world, sending shockwaves around scholars and UNESCO, who branded it ‘a war crime’. However, one fails to get an idea if ISIS either cared or even noticed that it had been denounced by UNESCO, the cultural body of the UN.

However, it could be said that the so-called Islamic State are by no means the first to use cultural destruction as a tactic in a vicious war. They are following on from the Nazis and Hitler. In 1942, in response to the British bombing of Lübeck, Hitler initiated a policy of attacking and blitzing British cultural sites. This is similar to ISIS as it was a way of lowering the morale of the local population as their culture and history was being demolished right in front of their eyes. Britain has been involved in eliminating certain cultures and religious buildings, as it was a policy of intimidation and fear during the Reformation to raise fire to rival churches.

According to Stephen Stenning’s writing in the British Council, destroying cultural heritage is more than just material damage and highlights why these barbaric regimes use it as tactic of war. “It is because they speak of the destruction of an entire city, a nation, a civilisation, and a way of life. The destruction represents not just the destruction of those immediately living alongside these monuments, but of entire generations.” Stenning is right, but it is also the intimidation and fear that if they can destroy your past so easily, then they can destroy you.

Nevertheless, what can actually be done to stop it? There needs to be more international cooperation, with America and Britain leading the way. There needs to be more international initiatives, and although there is an online campaign to save archaeological sites such as Palmyra, how much can an online campaign actually achieve in order to save a site in a war zone, apart from making Westerners feel like they helped save a part of Syria by one click.

ISIS hasn’t signed up to The Hague Convention, and so it has no reason to stop destroying ancient sites. In order to actually stop the destruction of the Sunni culture in Syria and Iraq under the ISIS, we need a stronger international policy to fight this rising insurgency. With so many interests involved in the civil war, it is going to be difficult to protect the culture and national interests. In order to protect cultures around the world, especially in Syria, there needs to be international cooperation at the highest level and a stronger UNESCO body in order to protect the UNESCO world heritage sites, many of which are in or near war zones.

Without resolving the Syrian conflict and gaining international cooperation between divisive states, the destruction will just rumble on and on, until the culture has been destroyed.

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