IF YOU know anything about the laws of conflict, you probably know that destroying or stealing the cultural and spiritual heritage of an enemy or an occupied land can be a war crime, especially if it’s done in a systematic way. That principle is laid out with ever-growing clarity in every modern document that aspires to set limits to the way people fight. You can find it in Abraham Lincoln’s code of conduct for the American civil war, in the Geneva Conventions, and in the statutes of modern war-crimes tribunals.
Still, that can seem like an awkward point to raise in situations where many other unspeakable things are happening. When the Pakistani Taliban is massacring children, should we also worry about the fact that it has physically eliminatedmany traces of the Buddhist heritage of its home region? During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some locals were exasperated by media coverage of the shelling of old Dubrovnik by Yugoslav forces. Bad as it was, didn’t this cultural loss pale compared with the human suffering that was unfolding in the region? More recently, the built heritage of Mali and Syria has suffered terrible damage, but surely that is less significant than the killing and uprooting of human civilians?
In reality, the two kinds of atrocity can’t be separated. That point was made vividly in London this week at a House of Lords event organised by Elizabeth Berridge, a lawyer and peeress who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, and Walk of Truth (WOT) a Hague-based NGO which campaigns to protect spiritual and cultural treasures from crime and war. (Full disclosure: I gave some informal advice when WOT was set up in 2011.) Persecuting people and harming or grabbing the things they call holy are two misdeeds that have gone hand in hand throughout history. If anything the interconnection is getting closer.
Islamic State (IS), the ultra-zealous force which under various names has run amok in Iraq and Syria, makes no secret of its intent to wreck or appropriate places of worship, monuments and sites that belong to belief systems other than its own narrow reading of Islam. That contrasts with early Islamic history, in which there were some famous acts of self-restraint: Caliph Omar held back from offering Muslim prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thus ensuring that it would remain a Christian place of worship. But no such spirit of self-limitation inhibits IS, for whom destroying the enemies’ holy things serves a double purpose. On one hand, it consolidates the group’s monopoly on power, by demoralising rival groups, and ensuring that they flee forever. On the other, cultural vandalism has a more immediate aim, that of raising money to fund further violence.
IS and similar groups either trade in antiquities themselves or license others to do so. Amr al-Azm, a scholar at America’s Shawnee State University, reported after visiting the area that IS was creaming off 20-50% of the proceeds of criminal looting. You can’t always distinguish between cultural vandalism in the name of religious zeal, and the more opportunistic kind. The result is the same: objects and images which are holy to some people are wrenched from the places where they were created and offered to auction houses and galleries in prosperous Western cities.