By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi/Kolkata: Cultural appropriation and subversion of history have been traditional historical tools in the spread of religious terrorism. But theft of history and its sale in the international market reduces the lofty spirit of the ‘jihad’— the premise of which every stream of insurrection drawing from religious schools of consciousness is based.
A world minus cultural history is a world of itinerants — regressive in its ways of looking at human progression out of the arcane cave dwellings into the advanced realms of civilization nurtured by rich and diverse streams of living legacies and histories of culture.
The relentless march of the dreaded Islamic State militia or the ISIS (Daesh as it known in the western Asia and in many African and central Asian nations) – which is reinstalling the Islamic caliphate, a relic of history from within the rubble of lost heritages — drives terror into the heart of every culturally rooted thinking man, who is increasingly looking upon the world as one globalised space having evolved out of clashes and confluences of disparate civilizations.
A set of video images released by the Islamic State throughout 2014-2015 shows the systematic destruction of ancient heritage sites like Nimrud, Mosul and Palmyra in Iraq and Syria respectively — in relentless and barbaric tranches that strives to drive home two points. First, the organisation like any other terror group wants to grab eyeballs in the international media and second, to churn out a psychosis of fear among the culturally-oriented neo-liberals in the Mesopotamian plains and elsewhere where the organisation is active to submit them to Wahabism — an orthodox interpretation of Islam that seeks to homogenize cultures in sync with the Spartan and rigid tenets of the hawkish brand of Islam espoused in the early years of the faith.
The faith, as the Wahabis say, prohibits idol worship, campaigns for the cause of the “jihad” or the holy war, model Sharia lifestyles and territorial expansion in the name of a Caliphate built on the strength of religion, intimidation and mad craving for power and loot. Faith is relegated to the backseat in the frenzy of prosletysation and longing for power over a cowering humanity by acts of atrocity and gore. Beheading and execution like the Fascist and the Nazi death squads are the militia’s favourite devices of subjugation. The outfit uses Wahabism as a tool to further its macabre designs — remove from its path every cultural legacy that is un-Islamic in origin.
Analysts say the outfit – that has established worldwide network with its “dedicated” hierarchy of zealous cadre, armies of western-educated adolescents and a tiered leadership – requires a “suitable” oasis of seclusion and dereliction in a no-man’s land to headquarter its agenda of terror. What can suit them better than Palmyra – the pearl of the desert — a rich oasis of palms nestled in the safety of the “past” and a rugged terrain in the Syrian dunes of wilderness. Palmyra provides the IS multi-pronged advantages — it renders them insulated from the “enlightening” influences of modern cultures, sanity and a steady flow of resources from the sale of historical memoirs. Palmyra is an ancient pre-Christian heritage site that bears testimony to a time when religion was defined by “divine rites” in abodes of timeless and invaluable beauty.
A Lebanese-French archaeologist Joanne Farchakh, says in The Independent, “The antiquities from Palmyra has been on sale in London. There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by ISIS that are still in Europe. The destruction hides the income of IS. It is selling these things before destroying the temples.” The video footages of the desecration are shocking – the organisation succeeds in its purpose to hit the culturally aware, thinking-world on its face.
In April, the outfit blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq and then Palmyra, where the militia had been making gradual inroads till it conquered the oasis virtually overnight in a civil coup, overrunning the streets. When it began to ravage Palmyra initially, the terror group strapped the Syrian soldiers to Roman pillars and placed explosives around them. After eliminating the armed resistance by Syrian forces, the militia unleashed bloodbaths on the streets of the oasis town. Last month, the organisation beheaded the former antiquities of the Palmyra museum- “incentivising” him for his lifetime of dedication to restoring the legacy of the great races of builders, who inhabited the region before the arrival of the prophet and Jesus Christ.
This mindless act of “neutralising” a key witness of un-Islamic history was followed by the destruction of the temple of Bal Shamim, an ancient Phoenician god of war and thunder — and the shrine of the Semitic deity of Bel – who lends Palmyra a place for itself in the spiritual map of West Asia as a pilgrimage hub and site of religious festivals. On Sept 4, the militia claimed that the outfit had destroyed all the old towers that canopied the UNESCO heritage town.
Around May, when the Syrian forces flanked off the initial wave of the Islamic militia attack, the terrorist group bathed the streets of Palmyra in blood, killing more than 400 people – mostly Muslims of Syrian origin. The objective of this massacre was grotesque than it seemed – not just a cultural relocation to impose the levelling writ of Islam as the group touted during the inauguration of its holocaust of history in April 2015, when it embarked on its mission of wiping out cultural lineages in an irrevocable subversion of history. It was the “sinister” and yet a “pedestrian” element of petty artifact loot that tainted the militia’s intent of messianic purpose.
The militia is using archaeology and history to its advantage. According to Farchakh, the Shah of Iran “used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history” and Saddam Hussain had his initials embossed on the bricks of Babylon.
In October, 1971 when the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi celebrated 2500-anniversary of the Iranian monarchy, he had spent an estimated $ 100 million to establish his family’s royal status by building a tent city next to the ruins of Persepolis, where guests were treated like monarchs at the cost of the country’s exchequer. Iran erupted in protests and the media alleged that the “Shah”, who was of commoner blood – an army officer’s descendant — used the official coffers to stamp his acquired “royal” genes on the country. He had minted a new coin of oppression.
Such acts of blasphemy and acquisition in the name of radical causes are widespread across history — from the ancient Caliphate sultans, the slave kings of Egypt to the grand Mughals and the neo-imperialists and the cults. They have all used subversion of historical events to tell their own stories. It is this war of cultural appropriation that defines the new anatomy of 21st century terrorism or rather the “clash of civilization” in which one race of people – with allegiance to a particular stream of thought — seeks to decimate a weaker group, in most instances- peace loving civilians, who are ineffectual against the “jihadi” might or organised guerrilla warfare. It is strange, as one historian, points out that the “common” people who have no knowledge of the new and complex pedagogy of terror and even “interpretation of religions” should be caught in the crosshairs and tangible histories – archaeology – brave the bullets of hate and domination play. The masterminds shulk in the shadows, occasionally splashed in the media as having been downed by drones, airstrikes and resistance coalition of governments fighting the brigands. They often make a comeback with severe injuries in “diligently planned and worded videos” exhorting the indoctrinated cadre to carry on with the “jihad” or their individual missions of bloodshed.
The Taliban had ruled the plains and hills of Afghanistan on this violent appropriation of a historical culture with a stringent interpretation of Islam, the al-Qaeda razed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in a fit of ‘jihadi’ rage – blatant show of religious and indoctrinated muscle— in retaliation to the blunders committed by the western world in Iraq and elsewhere. Yemen, Libya and Syria are caudrons of this historical hate and sustained and protracted civil wars— with consequent upheavals of displacement and demographic transformations across Europe and the western world. In India, the Partition of the country came riding on partisan religions, Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted a Islamic Pakistan – and Jawaharlal Nehru-Mahatma Gandhi wanted a secular India. The British rulers, wanted to deal a parting shot to the sub-continent’s cultural, social and political mosaic so that India remained with an “itch” on its shin for all ages to come contending with a hostile Pakistan and a belligerent Bangladesh. In more recent memory, the riots in Gujarat rustled up this religious divide once again to derail the process of globalisation. Sultan Mehamet fought the crusades, fired by the rage of a prosletysing Islam against an “emotionally-charged” Christianity.
But theft of history cannot be accounted in this lofty battle of spiritual or religious or political hegemonies. It takes back to the war in Iraq in 2003 when the national repositories of cultures were looted by rampaging mobs after the war. The National Museum in Baghdad officially reopened this year (2015) in February, 12 years after it was closed in the wake of the US invasion. The opening of the museum, as the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported was pre-poned as a “response to an Islamic State video showing statues being destroyed in the Iraqi heritage town of Mosul”. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider- al-Abadi described the acts of looting as barbaric. “These barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization,” he said.
Archaeologist Farchakh says “instead of building its power on archaeological objects, the outfit is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing a method- never ‘before’ in history and never ‘after’”. In a decade, Palmyra will be shorn of its collective historical memory and its new Caliphate rulers richer by billions of US dollars by selling the “oasis” of continuous past – rich and sought-after- like petty artifact thieves in the international markets bequeathing inheritances of loss and cultural emptiness to its posterity.
Where does it position the “jihad” of the Islamic State with its lurid lores of slave trade, torture, sexua’ excesses. zenophobic massacres of innocents, unwarranted indoctrination of minors, kidnappings and misplaced ideology of a larger Islamic pre-eminence fuelled by petty greed like unchecked artifact smuggling. The Islamic State needs to take a serious look at its “jihad” of goals — and saner means to achieve them. Theft and blood do not pay in ideological wars of civilisation. We have a right to our pasts and roots.
Senior Editor/The Statesman/Asia News Network (ANN)