AIJAZ ZAKA SYED, FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

History repeats itself as ISIS destroys Iraq heritage

A video reportedly released by the Nineveh branch of ISIS on Feb 25 shows a militant destroying the statue of a lamassu, an Assyrian deity, with a jackhammer in the northern Iraqi governorate of Nineveh. The five-minute video also shows ISIS militant
A video reportedly released by the Nineveh branch of ISIS on Feb 25 shows a militant destroying the statue of a lamassu, an Assyrian deity, with a jackhammer in the northern Iraqi governorate of Nineveh. The five-minute video also shows ISIS militants knocking statues off their plinths in the Mosul Museum and smashing them to pieces with sledgehammers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Marx said history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. In its long history, Iraq, the cradle of civilisation, has seen enough of both. It is said that when the Mongols ransacked Baghdad, a great centre of learning and civilisation, the city's fabled rivers turned dark.

It was not just the blood of Baghdad's residents butchered en masse by the invaders that had changed the colour of the water. The books from the city's libraries were thrown into the river Tigris in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink.

Established by Caliph Al Mansur in 762, Baghdad had not just been the capital of the Islamic world but also the civilisational centre of the known world. The libraries of Baghdad were unrivalled in their diversity. The House of Wisdom (Dar Al Hikma) attracted scholars, scientists, mathematicians and linguists from around the world.  

The Mongols entered Baghdad on Feb 10, 1258 and a full week of pillage and unprecedented destruction and savagery followed. The invaders showed no mercy or discretion, destroying mosques, hospitals, libraries and palaces. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1,000,000 people were butchered in just one week.

The fabled city of the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade was left completely depopulated and uninhabitable. It would take centuries for Baghdad to rise again.

What the Mongols and later the Crusaders, both old and new, visited on this ancient land by destroying its rich civilisation and heritage, has been a colossal and continuous tragedy. 

But what the hordes of new barbarians, the self-styled Islamic State, are inflicting on the region, all in the name of Islam and Muslims, is even worse - a farce that becomes more outrageous and tragic with each passing day. 

As if the casual brutality and spine-chilling beheadings and burning alive of victims on camera were not enough, the ISIS loonies are now on an iconoclastic mission, rampaging across Iraq and obliterating what even the Mongols did not manage to destroy. 

After vandalising the Mosul Museum, known for its treasure troves of Muslim and pre-Islamic history, ISIS gangs bulldozed the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud, Iraq's answer to the pharaoh and a contemporary of Prophet Abraham, who is revered by all three great monotheistic faiths. Nimrud's tales of hubris and his fall feature in the Quran and biblical accounts.

Iraq's rare archaeological sites, declared World Heritage sites by Unesco and prized by anthropologists, historians and scholars as shared human inheritance that have been around for more than 3,000 years, are being casually erased from the face of the earth. Online videos show ISIS militants demolishing ancient statues and other rare artifacts with sledgehammers.

At the Mosul library, they burnt piles of priceless manuscripts and books, just as the Mongols had done 900 years ago. But the Mongols were motivated by their mindless hatred of Islam, culture and civilisation. What drives the histrionics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Clearly, they see all human history, achievements and civilisation that preceded Islam as un-Islamic and hence unfit to exist in times and lands ruled by Islam and its followers.

One saw the same twisted, nihilistic mindset at work under the Taleban in Afghanistan. In 2001, months before the Sept 11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas, the tallest standing statues in the world, were demolished on the orders of Mullah Omar. 

The fifth century sculptures were carved by Greek artists out of mountains that guard the valley, which was part of the fabled Silk Route. For thousands of years, pilgrims, traders and invaders, including Alexander's army, passed through the valley on their way to India. It is part of the region known for its celebrated Gandhara art and rich Buddhist cultural heritage.   

It took the Taleban nearly a month of heavy artillery fire and eventually dynamite to bring down the Bamiyan Buddhas as a mystified world looked on in helpless horror. Iconoclastic acts have occurred throughout history but Bamiyan proved so defining and monumental in its impact it drew fierce protests from around the world, including Muslim lands.

But was it merely the "un-Islamic" nature of the Buddhist icons, decreed by Mullah Omar as "the gods of infidels", that led to their destruction or was there more to the Taleban madness than met the eye? It seems politics, rather than religion, was responsible for the Bamiyan tragedy. 

It is argued that punitive Western sanctions on Afghanistan demanding the scalp of Osama bin Laden may have contributed to the mindless vandalism. Bin Laden was wanted at the time in connection with the bombings of US embassies in Africa in 1998. The sanctions increased the severity of an already dire famine that the country was battling at the time.

As the Taleban ambassador at large Rahmatullah Hashimi told broadcast journalist Ray Suarez on NPR in 2001: "If the world is destroying our future with economic sanctions, why do they worry about our past? You're destroying our children. Is the life of our people any less important (than these statues?)"

Twisted logic but it offered enough insight into the Taleban mindset. What's the difference then between this annihilation of Afghanistan's heritage and the destruction visited on the country by the Russian and Western invasions? Or for that matter how is what the Taleban did in Afghanistan then and what ISIS is doing today in Iraq any different from what happened to the 16th century Babri mosque at Ayodhya in India in 1992 at the hands of a Hindu mob?

While Islam does frown on idols and idol worship, it does not command or give its believers a licence to go on an iconoclastic rampage, destroying revered icons and places of worship of the rest of humanity. The Prophet did remove idols placed in Kaaba as it was the first house of God built by Abraham in Mecca, according to the Quran. However, he also repeatedly asked his followers, as does the Quran, to respect others' beliefs and their icons. 

Throughout history, Muslim rulers have followed the example of the second caliph Omar, who travelled from Medina to Jerusalem to receive the keys of the holy city from Patriarch Sophronius, and pledged to protect Jews, Christians and other minorities. This is why what is going on in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere at the hands of the self-anointed defenders of the faith is not just incredibly appalling and outrageous, it is also a travesty of Islam and its teachings. 

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer and former opinion editor of Khaleej Times.