The recent vandalization of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State—and the destruction of lesser shrines in Libya by local Islamists, which started in 2012—is not an isolated phenomenon. It stems from deep-seated pathologies afflicting the Muslim world.
Yes, many Arabs and Muslims condemn these actions. But many don’t quite see what the fuss is about—or are willing to defer to those who feel strongly that Islamic taboos trump historical value. And while most of the developed world believes that a 2,000-year-old monument has moral value because it is part of the historical record, much of the Muslim world does not share the Western understanding of “the historical record” or its importance.
It is not only the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, that is eradicating the Muslim past. Much of Mecca’s history has been bulldozed in recent years. In Mali, hardline Islamist militia Ansar Dine destroyed 1,000-year-old Sufi saints’ tombs and torched priceless ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. And the vandalism in Libya began long before ISIS arrived there.
In August 2012 I saw the immediate aftermath of the destruction of a Sufi Muslim shrine by local Islamists just outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Tripoli. A few people did try to stop the demolition, and were beaten for their pains; most people, even archeologists, kept their heads down and did nothing. (Our State Department was courting these same Islamists at the time.)
A number of educated Libyans I know conceded the plausibility of the hardline Wahabi argument that tombs should not be located inside mosques. But that doesn’t mean tombs have to be bulldozed; they could be relocated, especially to a museum where no one would be in danger of the crime of “worshipping” them.
Belatedly, the Egyptian Islamic Institute al Azhar, the greatest mainstream authority in Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa against the destruction of ancient artifacts, dismissing ISIS claims they are “idols” and declaring them “an important part of our collective legacy that must not be harmed.” The Malian government, saved by the French military in 2013 and backed by UNESCO, is making an effort to rebuild some of the heritage sites in Timbuktu wantonly destroyed in 2012, and locals managed to smuggle many of the ancient manuscripts during the jihadist occupation, risking their lives or the amputation of their limbs for doing so.
But none of the so-called moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has stepped up to the plate to support conservation measures in Libya. And even where Islamic taboos aren’t an issue, simple greed has led to heritage destruction. In August 2013 in eastern Libya, profiteers destroyed part of a Greek necropolis simply to sell the land underneath.
Most Libyans don’t understand their glorious ruins as hallowed by time, because such an understanding is based on believing in the primacy of the real over the fake or the copy. And that in turn depends on believing in objective reality.
Libyans, like Iraqis and other peoples who have lived under dictators for a very long time, have been exposed to a steady diet of fake news and disinformation. So, there is an inability to imagine that there might be a more-or-less objective truth about historical events, and a lack of interest in discovering that truth and publicizing it. Yes, Libyans—like citizens of other Arab Spring countries—like revealing gossip and financial misdeeds, usually on Facebook; I call it “government by Facebook”; Russians call it “compromat.” But all too many don’t seem to believe in a truth, just in plausible versions. You might call these Libyans naïve post-modernists.
This leads to an inability to condemn the destruction of heritage—and sometimes even to the denial that atrocities have occurred. There’s widespread denial of any event that makes Muslims—especially in one’s own country—look bad. A Libyan friend with a master’s in public health just told me that the ISIS video of the killing of the 21 Egyptian Coptic fisherman was “a fake”; finally, he admitted that it might be real, but claimed that it happened in Egypt, not Libya. I am sure there are many Iraqis who will argue that the videos of the destruction of Nimrud are fake.
The lack of interest in facts leads to a worldview in which everything that happens has a provisional reality; it might or might not be true. (This includes religious dicta: if some fanatic says the Quran allows something, or forbids it, many Muslims will give him the benefit of the doubt.) And this, together with the “inshallah” mentality, which says that if God wills it, it will happen, leads to the fatal passivity in the face of extremism which has been all too common in post-revolutionary Libya—not to mention Iraq.
Libyans lived in Greek colonies and served in the Roman Senate; the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Libyan. Democracy and classical culture are as much part of Libya’s heritage as of Britain’s. The current chaos and rise of Islamic extremists in both Iraq and Libya—and Syria and Yemen—isn’t an argument against the eventual viability of democracy in these countries, or against the West supporting uprisings against Arab tyrants, or against the moral value of the human beings who live in these countries. It is exactly what might be expected from the broken people of a broken culture, who have decades of catching up to the rest of the world ahead of them. There is no time like the present for them to start, and with our support.
There are carrots and sticks that we can use. One of the sticks was recently suggested by Eric Gibson in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: putting some teeth into the sections of the U.N. Hague Convention of 1954 to punish the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. Carrots would include making monetary awards to those who preserve cultural heritage in the face of grave risk, like the “book smugglers” of Timbuktu, the Libyans who guarded their classical ruins during the revolution, and those who preserved the artifacts of the Baghdad and Kabul museums. It is of course the Muslim world that has the most to gain from preserving its heritage. Ironically, if ISIS succeeds in its nihilistic goals, it will destroy the evidence of Muslim artistic achievements.