From stamping out idolatry, to propaganda, to making some extra cash, there are many reasons why extremists want to erase history
The Islamic State has made it clear that it wishes to systematically erase from existence many irreplaceable pieces of human history in an effort to stamp out idolatry. In addition, the perpetrators of much of this destruction seem bent on making their statements as loud as possible. This type of activity must eventually be stamped out altogether, otherwise it appears that large swaths of archaeological capital may disappear completely.
On Monday an explosion destroyed a portion of the Temple of Bel in the Syrian city of Palmyra. To quote a former Syrian government antiquities official “This is the most devastating act yet, in my opinion. It truly demonstrates ISIS’ ability to act with impunity and the impotence of the international community to stop them.”
Last year the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed as well. This was designed to be and came as a significant blow to both Jews and Christians in the region. Ideological warfare, here, is the pattern which perpetuates itself in terms of the Islamic State.
Behind acts like these is a thought process which is, fundamentally, two-fold. First, this propagandized vein of thinking has its root in deep superstition. What this means, when put simply, is that individuals and groups subject to the narrative provided by those who evangelize the causes of terrorism and heinous vandalism, on the part of the Islamic State, are generally responsive to ideas which espouse the value of piety by means of elimination.
Second, there exists a clear imperative for the Islamic State to mark itself on history in some way, whether it is by creation of history, in the case of its production of propaganda related to its many executions and demolitions of various historical sites, or whether it is the funding of its own operations by stripping these same sites of valuable antiquities and selling them off into underground black markets. The latter of these two consists in the perpetuation of the Islamic State through rather impious and underhanded means.
While the destruction of historical sites certainly hurts, it seems evident that this, in itself, is not necessarily a justification for military action. In the larger scheme of things, the continued decay of once-inhabited Syrian cities (such as Aleppo) as well as violence which is seemingly ceaseless, an enforced peace sounds like quite the goal.
The presence of NATO forces, whether it is boots on the ground (which seems fairly unlikely) or other types of means to action theoretically adds a dimension of stability to Syria. Additionally, Syrian rebel parties have shown themselves to be simultaneously trustworthy and competitive with each other and also with the Islamic State.
These groups generally have little to no desire to mangle historical sites and many, indeed, have serious problems with the means by which the Islamic State has gone about establishing itself as a “powerful” entity in the region.
Only time will tell how much further the conflict in Syria will go before augmented action, on the part of the Obama administration, is actually carried out. In recent months, drone strikes have been authorized on targeted parties in the region. These are aimed at weakening the cohesive network which has been established by the Islamic State.
If human history is to be preserved it will be necessary to guard against more damage to all human sites, whether or not they are inhabited. Efforts at protecting and securing historically and culturally significant sites against harm serves not only to preserve ethnic identities from centuries past which the Islamic State wishes to eliminate but also to ensure heightened regional peace and stability. Finally, to that end, it will be extremely prudent to maintain a posture, with respect to the government of Bashar al-Assad, that sits at arm’s length, as tensions between Syria and NATO allied states remain.