Theatres of erasure: Syria and Iraq
The violence in Iraq has killed nearly 6,000 civilians since the start of 2014, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. In Syria, over 100,000 lives have been claimed and some two million persons displaced since the start of the civil war in March 2011.
Media coverage has rightly focused on the human dimension of suffering. With this essay, however, we want to reflect upon another important aspect of the violence: the systematic destruction of cultural sites and objects.
Historic minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque destroyed in Aleppo. Demotix/Halabi Lens. All rights reserved.
According to reports of the activist Facebook group Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger, all six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been damaged, major museum collections at Homs and Hama have been looted, and dozens of ancient tells have been obliterated by shelling.
In Iraq, recent media stories recount ISIS fighters’ use of antiquities to raise revenues. So-called blood antiquities function as cash-cows, fetching high prices from unscrupulous collectors and netting a handsome cut for ISIS.
As devastating as this news is, Syria and Iraq are simply additional chapters in the long-running story wherein conflict is characterised by a two-fold assault on humanity: human bodies themselves as well as the objects and sites that people create and infuse with cultural meaning.
Cultural violence is not a practice exclusive to Islamic groups or areas; rather, it is the nature of all radical ideologies, religious and national alike. They proceed with a predictable agenda: first to paint the world in black and white, and then to erase all shades of cultural practice from non-white to black.
Before asking ourselves what steps should be taken to save artefacts, monuments, and antiquities in the Middle East, we need to understand why doing so matters. This requires an understanding of the broader historical pattern of organised cultural violence.
Cultural violence and genocide: a 20th-century hate story
The destruction of human communities is incomplete without cultural violence. This was the conclusion of lawyer and human rights advocate Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born jurist who coined the term “genocide” and fought successfully for its recognition by international legal bodies as a crime. In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), he argued:
By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group…[It signifies] a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. (Lemkin 1944: 80)
Among the “essential foundations” of the life of human societies, Lemkin argued, were cultural sites, objects, and practices. The Holocaust galvanised his human rights work, but it was the tragic case of Turkish Armenians during the beginning decades of the twentieth century that served as the basis for Lemkin’s theory of genocide.
Turkish Armenians were subject to organised murder and deportation under the Ottoman government, an event now widely acknowledged despite continued denials by Turkish officials. Current scholarly discussion on the Armenian genocide, however, focuses almost exclusively on the human destruction, not taking into consideration the systematic annihilation of Armenian sites and monuments that has taken place since then.
Yet, the cultural destruction has been so extensive that few people in Turkey today even know that eastern Asia Minor was once the ancestral lands of Armenians; they do not because the Turkish state and its governments have systematically removed all markers of the Armenians’ civilisation.
Such cultural destruction occurred in stages. First, the potential of inherent threat was raised publicly to legitimate the forced removal of Armenian women, men, and children of the Ottoman Empire, plundering what they left behind and settling Muslim refugees in their houses. Then, all Armenian churches, schools and monasteries were confiscated and settled by either state officers or officials, or local Muslim notables.
Since Asia Minor had been the ancestral lands of the Armenians for thousands of years, the churches and monasteries as well as their cemeteries were especially significant in documenting the course of human history. Those Armenian buildings not converted to mosques were torn down, used to store grain or shelter animals, or employed by the military for target practice.
Also significant in this context was the systematic replacement of Armenian place names (on streets, buildings, neighbourhoods, towns, and villages) with Turkish names. The erasure of Armenians from collective memory was completed during the Turkish Republic; in their history textbooks, Turkish children hear nothing about Armenian culture or learn simply that they were enemies of the Turks.
In sum, all cultural meaning that had emerged in the past and present was eliminated systematically blow by blow, leaving behind patterns of discrimination cut through with deep silences. This is cultural death, and it is especially dangerous because it legitimates the denial of diversity by authoritarian states and their societies.
Cultural violence was not an Ottoman innovation. Historical records document previous erasures of peoples and their culture: the Native Americans and First Nations of north America; the Mayas and Aztecs of Mesoamerica; and the Roman destruction of Carthage (north Africa), which some scholars point to as the earliest recorded organised genocide.
So what’s new about the current spate of cultural violence in the Middle East? The Internet and new media are bringing new complexity to the pursuit of and resistance to cultural violence. We will wrap up our essay by turning our thoughts to new media’s Janus-like ability to silence and amplify the experience of cultural violence.
The perils and possibilities of new media
The Facebook site we referred to in the opening of this essay is one of many new media efforts to draw attention to the destruction of historic sites, structures, and monuments in Syria.
Complementary projects are underway in Egypt, where archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna posts regular Tweets and Facebook posts about damage to Egyptian historic culture; and in Cambodia, where the Facebook page Heritage Watch—Cambodia is documenting in words and pictures looters’ ransacking of ancient temples and illicit sales of Cambodian cultural artefacts.
Are these efforts effective? If their primary objective is to make publicly available evidence of cultural violence, then yes – they have succeeded. Whether such efforts have actually curbed rates of cultural violence we cannot yet say. What we do know is that amplification threatens ruling powers.
A case in point is the harrowing plight of Syrian journalist Ali Mahmoud Othman, co-founder of Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger. Othman was arrested by government forces in March 2012 and has not been heard of since his televised “confession” in May 2012. As of this writing, his supporters and loved ones continue to fear for his life.
If you are an educated but non-specialist reader, the chances are that you know nothing of the Othman case but have heard a lot about James Foley, the American journalist murdered by ISIS last month. The flip side of new media, then, is that it has the power to direct our attention to particular cases or issues while ignoring others.
Recurring Internet images of ISIS fighters beheading western men obscure the equally outrageous and horrific acts of sexual violence against women, torture of children, and destruction of homes, markets, churches, Shi’a mosques, and ancient monuments. All of this constitutes the challenging environment in which cultural activists must do their work.
Moving ahead by preserving the past
What should we make of it all? Human beings are suffering death, trauma, and displacement everyday in Syria and Iraq, but there remains a thorny question: Surely human suffering should be prioritised before cultural objects?
The simple answer is yes; people come first, and the basic operational strategies of aid organisations and foreign governments - providing tents, food, medicine, and psychological support - should fill the convoys.
However, ranking aid priorities from most to least urgent is complicated and short-sighted. Lemkin’s teachings still have something to say to us today: without monuments and cultural objects, social groups are atomised into disaffected, soulless individuals.
For this reason, the cultural environment deserves simultaneous close attention by policymakers and foreign governments and NGOs. When cultural violence is allowed to flourish the process of re-building human communities is difficult if not impossible.
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