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Islamic State and the destruction of Iraq’s historical heritage


The picturesque city of Akre in northern Iraq. The country's heritage is under threat from Islamic State. David Stanley under a Creative Commons Licence

In late February, Islamic State (IS) destroyed ancient artifacts at Mosul Museum and bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq.

As Iraqi forces – backed by Shi’a militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish fighters – try to drive IS out of Tikrit and Mosul, the group is attempting to draw a parallel between itself and Prophet Muhammad,  recreating a narrative to attract recruits, bolster waning morale and detract from the weakening socioeconomic situation.

Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have blockaded key routes to city, making it difficult for IS ‘to transfer goods, petrol and military equipment’. Life in Mosul has become very hard, with rising commodity prices and fuel, food and water shortages. IS has, therefore, found it necessary to put forth narratives that emphasize the importance of its mission.

Fighting a war against stronger opponent(s) requires successful propaganda. As US jihadist Omar Hammami, former head of the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, pointed out, ‘The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm and knives.’

Narratives conjure up collective memories of the past. The majority of Muslims are familiar with the story about Prophet Muhammad’s shattering of idols in Mecca. According to Sahih al-Bukhari, a widely respected compiler of hadiths (prophetic traditions), Prophet Muhammad, upon entering Mecca, attacked ‘360 idols around the Ka’ba.’ He then recited: ‘Truth (Islam) has come and Falsehood (disbelief) has vanished.’

This event is central to Islam, as it emphasizes tawhid (monotheism or oneness of Allah), as opposed to shirk (polytheism), which is considered a grave sin.

IS is exploiting this deeply ingrained narrative. By breaking artifacts, incinerating books and manuscripts, and bulldozing an ancient city, it is waging a campaign to situate itself as a torchbearer of Muhammad’s holy mission to rid the world of all things un-Islamic.

Through contrived political acts, IS seeks to achieve maximum global ‘shock value’. In a seminal study on insurgent propaganda, Neville Bolt referred to this strategy as the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). POTD is a well-planned ‘act of political violence’ which aims to create a shocking media event ‘capable of energizing populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation’.

This tactic is not new to IS. Many countries and groups have employed POTD. Flag and effigy burnings, death chants and vandalizing places of worship are all political acts of violence, aimed at realizing outmost shock value.

This ‘media event’ is most effective when it has viewers who are awed, disgusted, fascinated or outraged. Global outrage leads to international condemnation. It also instigates the group’s enemies to overreact forcefully, which then helps legitimize IS’s revolutionary agenda.

The international community has certainly reacted as IS had hoped. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, denounced the demolition of the artifacts as a ‘tragic destruction’ of the ‘heritage of all mankind’ and urged the UN Security Council to take action to protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Similarly, after IS bulldozed Nimrud, the Iraqi government censured it as a breach of ‘the will of the world and the feelings of humanity’. Irina Bokova claimed that it constituted ‘a war crime’.

As military tensions escalate, IS has begun to employ a double-edged propaganda tactic. First, it seeks to depict itself as following the path of Prophet Muhammad, through destruction of pre-Islamic artifacts. Second, it wants to shock and awe the world – countries, international institutions, and NGOs – into taking harsh action against it. These schemes both help IS maximize its legitimacy and attract recruits. Its recent actions show that it will malign the values of Islam and draw dubious comparisons in order to preserve its so-called Caliphate.

The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.

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