Why ISIS Just Beheaded History

ISIS isn’t original in smashing the past to prop up the present. It’s been the practice of totalitarians throughout the ages.

A video released by ISIS on Thursday shows members of the terrorist organization and self-proclaimed state destroying important artifacts at Mosul’s museum in Iraq and Assyrian statues at the nearby archeological site of Nineveh. The footage shows men using drills and sledgehammers to destroy first the artifacts in the museum and then three large Assyrian 7th-century BCE statues of bearded winged figures. These statues adorned the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh, mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the prophet Jonah.

A spokesperson for ISIS says at the beginning of the video that “the prophet Mohammed commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues.” According to the MEMRI translation, he added, “This is what his companions did later on when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.”

It is difficult not to be reminded of the early days of the Taliban, when they very publicly blew up the two great 6th-century CE statues of Buddha carved into the cliffs of the Bamyan valley in Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as the world was aware years in advance that the Buddhas were in danger from the Taliban, artifacts in the Mosul museum have been on international conservation watch lists for months, since ISIS had threatened to destroy the collection after occupying Mosul last summer. It is possible that, as with the destruction of the Buddhas, ISIS deliberately targeted these artifacts not merely because they were pre-Islamic and therefore “idols,” but especially because they were so highly esteemed by those abroad. The videos of book burning and exploding pilgrimage centers are further evidence that the members of ISIS are cultural trolls.

It is important to recognize that while the two most recent examples emerge from a common background, the public and highly publicized destruction of long-standing symbols of earlier cultural symbols is not at all unique to modern militant Islam. When Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire after the conversion of the emperor Constantine, pagan temples began to be looted and destroyed. Roman emperors after him instituted strict anti-pagan laws.

Nor is this behavior strictly a religious phenomenon. In ancient Egypt, new pharaohs regularly had the names and symbols of their predecessors effaced from public monuments. Roman emperors did the same to the monuments and symbols of predecessors they wanted stricken from the record. In the modern period, the Soviet state, as part of its commitment to atheism, systematically destroyed Russian Orthodox churches and icons.

What all of these instances of cultural destruction have in common is the display of authority thought to be necessary upon the advent of a new regime. Reminders of past glories, pre-existing belief systems, or previous rules and rulers are often the first target of attack. They are lasting signs of the temporality of power—they serve as reminders that governments and dynasties and religions rise and fall with the course of human history. But, such destruction proclaims, this latest one will endure.

The cloak of piety conceals beneath it the universal concern for control over the narrative of history, for the power to efface the past in favor of the new present. ISIS is acting in the name of Allah, but they are in fact acting like all cultural conquerors. This is why they, like others before them, target those structures and items most treasured by the wider world. And this is why they broadcast their actions on the Internet. It is about publicity and power, not piety. Though they say that they “do not care what people think,” in fact, this is entirely about caring what people think, and going after precisely those things that people care most about.

But the claim that they do not care about the financial cost of destroying these artifacts rings hollow. There is ample evidence that ISIS is trafficking on the black market smaller—which is to say less public—and more valuable pieces to interested parties. The market in blood artifacts isn’t even well hidden, though it undermines the principles on which ISIS claims to be acting. A report by the BBC’s Radio 4 revealed that gallery dealers are openly stating “We just got this out of Syria” and “This piece is more interesting. It has just come from Iraq.” ISIS is, and has been from the beginning, using looted artifacts to fund its campaign. They can destroy “billions of dollars” worth of antiquities on the Internet in large part because they know that they can still bring in fortunes on the black market. For all the religious idealism, they follow the money.

The destruction of these priceless antiquities is a staggering loss and a true cultural tragedy. We should not, however, attribute it to militant Islam—even if the militant Islamists say so themselves. It is, sadly, a common project of totalitarian regimes from ancient times to the present: Eradicating the past to prop up the present.