The problem beyond the destruction of Baal Shamin
On August 23rd, the Islamic State (ISIS) destroyed the temple of Baal Shamin, a major monument in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra.
The temple, part of a World Heritage site, was the first major Roman-era monument targeted by ISIS. The monument, dating to the first century, was dedicated to the Phoenician god of rain and fertility.
Since May 21st, when it took control of Palmyra, ISIS has used the ancient city of Palmyra to stage endless theatrics of horror. It executed 25 Syrian government soldiers in the Roman amphitheatre before a crowd of onlookers, destroyed a number of shrines and monuments including the Lion Statue of Athena — a unique limestone piece standing before the city museum. More recently, it executed and mutilated Khaled Asaad, the 82-year-old antiquities chief of the city.
All of these atrocities were filmed and posted online.
Through its acts of destruction, ISIS seeks to shock world opinion and attract potential followers from among those who find such acts of barbarity a source of inspiration. But ISIS’s image, its “brand”, is already well-established as a ruthless, bloodthirsty and terror-driven organisation.
Throughout the years, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS (and their offshoots) have made a point of obliterating monuments of world heritage that did not reflect their dogmatic vision of history. The Taliban destroyed two gigantic Buddha statues near the Afghan town of Bamiyan in 2001, while al-Qaeda militants destroyed many of the mausoleums of Mali’s Timbuktu in 2012. In 2014, ISIS blew up the Nabi Yunus and Nimrud shrines in Mosul, Iraq.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said: “Daesh is killing people and destroying sites but it cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world.
“Despite the obstacles and fanaticism, human creativity will prevail, buildings and sites will be rehabilitated, and some will be rebuilt.”
Preventing ISIS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, from destroying archaeological sites is indeed a worthy objective. But fulfilling that objective requires, first and foremost, intensified international cooperation to defeat ISIS on the battlefield. Protecting world historic heritage would also benefit from more concerted efforts to stop international trafficking of plundered artefacts, a business driven purely by greed. ISIS’s puritanical streak cannot hide its involvement in the looting of ancient artefacts for monetary gain.
But the real threat posed by ISIS is about much more than the destruction of historic monuments.
It is about a terrorising messenger that is sending thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and other Middle Easterners fleeing for their lives across the sea. It is about the rest of the world coming to associate every migrant or Arab-looking person, who is travelling by train or plane, with terror intent.
Priority should be given to combating the ideology of death that drives ISIS to commit its atrocities and pollutes the minds of too many young people. The responsibility for that will have to be borne by Islamic institutions but also by governments, civil society and the media in Middle East and North Africa region.
As misguided as it is, this ideology exerts a powerful draw on vulnerable fringes in the Arab-Muslim world and beyond. It serves no purpose to underestimate the problem.