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Antiquities Scholar: Islamic State's Destruction of Museum & Library is Cultural & Ethnic Cleansing

February 27, 2015
Story
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Guests

Zainab Bahrani

professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archaeology at Columbia University. Her most recent book is called The Infinite Image: Art, Time and the Aesthetic Dimension in Antiquity.

Video has surfaced showing militants from the Islamic State destroying ancient artifacts at a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Men are seen toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C. The Islamic State has also reportedly destroyed the Mosul public library, which housed more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. On Thursday, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, called for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage. "I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. We speak to Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archeology at Columbia University. She has worked extensively in Iraq, including periods as senior adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and a UNESCO consultant.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq, where video has surfaced showing militants from the Islamic State destroying ancient artifacts at a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Men are seen toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thurday, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, called for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said, quote, "I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred."

UNESCO has also warned about the self-proclaimed Islamic State generating income from the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council banned all trade in antiquities from wartorn Syria and reaffirmed a ban on Iraqi artifact sales from about a decade ago.

Joining us here in New York is Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archeology at Columbia University. She has worked extensively in Iraq, including periods as senior adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and, back in 2004 or so, a UNESCO consultant.

We welcome you, Professor Bahrani, to Democracy Now! Talk about what is happening, the significance—let’s start with the Mosul museum.

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, the Mosul museum is a major museum in the Middle East. It’s one of the largest museums in the area, and it has a remarkable collection of finds that date back to the Neolithic era and continue into the Islamic period, so covering thousands of years, going back to about 8,000 B.C.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction when we saw the video yesterday?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, I think we, all of us who are in the field, were completely horrified. I mean, of course we expected that something like this might happen, ever since ISIS took over the area, took over Mosul. But to see it actually happen was devastating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is their rationale or their reasons for doing this?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, the rationale seems to be, from what they are saying on the video, that these are idols, and therefore they are false gods and should be destroyed. But, to me, this actually doesn’t make that much sense, since, of course, a lot of this cultural heritage and these antiquities have been visible since the seventh century A.D., and they have been there unharmed. So, it’s not really clear why now this should happen.

AMY GOODMAN: On the one hand, the rationale of it being heretical, right, the false idols—

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —and on the other hand, it’s believed—I mean, I can’t confirm this myself independently—that the militants have sold the ancient artifacts on the black market?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, it seems to be that there is a great deal of selling of antiquities by ISIL. And this has been confirmed by certain people who are watching the trade in antiquities. So they are selling antiquities. One of the arguments is that the objects they destroyed yesterday were the larger pieces that could not be moved out and sold, so they were more likely to be able to destroy them.

I think that a great deal of the discussion here in the West, and perhaps throughout the world, has focused on the looting rather than the issue of cultural cleansing. The destruction of monuments on site is also something to be concerned about. I mean, the looting for the antiquities market, which is an illicit international market, is very important to consider, because this is very destructive. But the blowing up of shrines and monuments on site is really horrendous, and this is a form of cultural cleansing, certainly, but also ethnic cleansing.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, it’s a form of ethnic cleansing because this is a region of the world—Mesopotamia has always been a multicultural, mutli-ethnic, multilinguistic and multireligious community, the entirety of the country. And what’s happening now is that diversity is being wiped out. So when you wipe out people’s monuments and heritage, you erase any record of their ever having been there. And it’s a way of creating a terra nulla, if you will, a kind of an empty land that you can conquer and then claim that there was nothing there before. So it’s a general erasure and rewriting of history of Mesopotamia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, UNESCO’s director-general expressed outrage following the Islamic State’s attack on the Mosul museum. Irina Bokova said, quote, "This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy—this is also a security issue as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq. ... The systematic destruction of iconic components of Iraq’s rich and diverse heritage that we have been witnessing over the past months is intolerable and it must stop immediately." And, of course, Iraq went—Iraq went through similar problems—not at this scale—during the—in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, the disorder that followed, when there was also some destruction and looting that occurred.

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, I think that’s right. And I think too many people have forgotten that all of this actually began a long time ago. Of course, the scale now is far greater, and the slaughter that’s taking place of human beings is truly horrendous, but the rewriting of Iraq’s history and the erasure of its past actually started with the 2003 war, if not even with the earlier one. So there has been a great deal of destruction of heritage sites, and the attempt to say that this is ingrained in the culture. I think one large problem is that pundits here in the West often say, "Well, these acts are grounded, are based, in the historical reality of Iraq, of Mesopotamia. This is a kind of an internal fight between Shia and Sunni peoples, and we should just mind our own business and leave it alone." But it seems to me that this is completely misguided, because what we are saying is that this is based in history. We’re trying to say—the pundits are trying to say that this is based in a historical reality, when it’s not. It’s a complete rewriting of what was the historical reality. Now, let’s take, for example, the idea of the resurrection of a medieval Islamic state. So, of course, here, everybody says, "Well, they are truly barbaric. They are medieval." But everybody who has read history knows that in the Abbasid empire, the caliphs of the Abbasids valued scholarship. They translated Greek classical texts. They loved the arts and promoted arts and architecture. So, it’s actually quite false to say that in the Middle Ages they were opposed to these things.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Professor Bahrani, going back to 2003, the day after Baghdad fell, that famous scene of the looters coming from the Iraqi museum—

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —and the criticism of the U.S. for not protecting the museum. Going back to that time, declaring that freedom is "untidy," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the looting in Iraq was a result of "pent-up feelings" of oppression, that it would subside as Iraqis adjusted to life without Saddam Hussein. He said, "Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here." Looting, he said, was not uncommon for countries that experience significant social upheaval. Rumsfeld said, "Stuff happens."

ZAINAB BAHRANI: I remember his statements very well. I also remember that he was quite taken aback that there was more than one vase in the entire country. And he seemed to have not realized that Iraq is Mesopotamia, the cradle of the world’s civilization. And how he did not know that, I’m really not sure. But he was clearly very mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the historical legacy of Muslims protecting antiquities, knowledge, philosophy, science?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not my specific area of expertise, because I’m a specialist in the pre-Islamic past, but I know enough to know that this heritage has always been there, that Islamic geographers and travelers and historians have written about places like Babylon and Nineveh in the Middle Ages. The caliphs, the Abbasid caliphs especially, supported the scholarship of the ancient Greek classical texts and philosophy and the sciences, in a way that is truly unparalleled not just in the history of Iraq, but, I would say, in a great part of the world. It’s one of the high points of the world’s history of scholarly knowledge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the reaction in the rest of the—throughout the rest of the Middle East, of other governments and civil society organizations after they’ve heard about this from yesterday?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: I think that most of the news that I’ve heard from all over the Middle East is that people are horrified, that everybody is taken aback, because nobody was expecting this extent of just senseless destruction. Of course, this is a very small thing to consider after the mass slaughter, the kidnapping, the rapes, the torture, the daily murdering. So, this is really very much just a kind of a last straw on top of a terrible annihilation of people.

But what I want to stress is that the destruction of this sculpture, of the heritage sites and the ancient Assyrian and Hadrian sculpture that we saw destroyed in the video, that this is not just about the past. This is about a destruction and an erasure of the history of the people of Iraq, as a way to say that they never belonged here.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archaeology at Columbia University. Her most recent book is called The Infinite Image: Art, Time and the Aesthetic Dimension in Antiquity.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Pasco, Washington. It was there that police killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes. Cellphone video shows him putting up his hands. He was unarmed. Stay with us.


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