Friday 4 December 2015, Rossa Minogue

From Islamic State to Oxford: a monumental war on the past?

Podcast: Listen to the debate from the Battle of Ideas 2015.

The Islamic State’s attacks on antiquities in Iraq and Syria have caused outrage worldwide. The systematic destruction of ancient archaeological ruins at Nimrud and Palmyra, artefacts at the museum of Mosul, early Christian churches and sacred Shia sites has raised almost as much ire internationally as IS’s barbaric execution of prisoners. Some have even suggested that attacks on cultural artefacts justify increased Western military intervention.

The phenomenon has been widely attributed to IS’s strict Islamist doctrine and broad interpretation of what constitutes idolatry. Many have drawn parallels with similar acts of destruction by other Islamic fundamentalists, like the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 and the torching of large collections of fifteenth century manuscripts by Malian Islamists in Timbuktu in 2013.

Others have compared IS’s actions to the Christian destruction of idolatry in the Byzantine and Reformation periods, but IS’s war on the culture of the past seems driven by more than religious iconoclasm. Like the brutal beheadings and immolation of prisoners, the destruction of antiquities is designed to shock the West’s sensibilities while proving IS’s barbaric credentials. Destroying the vestiges of past cultures is a way of making a statement about the world IS would like forge.

Understandably, the destruction of irreplaceable relics from early civilizations inspires a special kind of indignation. Yet when contemporary societies try to expunge the past of things of which they disapprove, they face less criticism. This year, South Africa has seen campaigns and vandalism aimed at ridding the country of public symbols of its colonial past, notably statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria. The campaign spread to Oxford University in the UK with students demanding the removal of a statues and portraits of Rhodes and former slave holders like Christopher Codrington. Elsewhere in the UK, there is increasing reticence about museum collections acquired during colonial adventures, notably that of the British Museum. While in Ukraine, the Kiev government has ordered the destruction of all Soviet-era statues.

Is it a distortion to compare efforts in other countries to rid themselves of icons of colonialism, prejudice and unhealthy habits with IS’s war on civilisation itself? Or do we need to take a stand for preserving the relics of humanity’s past culture in all contexts, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not? Is it problematic that some seem more upset by the destruction of inanimate objects than murders carried out by the ISIS regime?  Does IS’s actions warrant military intervention or the formation of a transnational organisation to protect ancient cultural relics from destruction? What should be done?


Julian Baggini
founding editor, the Philosophers’ Magazine; author, Freedom Regained: the possibility of free will and The Ego Trick

Robert Bevan
writer; heritage consultant; architecture critic for the London Evening Standard; author, The Destruction of Memory: architecture at war

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
academic, columnist, author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Dr Sean Lang
senior lecturer in history, Anglia Ruskin University; director, Better History Forum


Rossa Minogue
resources editor, IoI

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