Why Does Heritage Become Hostage?

03/04/2015 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Written by Chip Colwell

In the early spring of 2001, dark rumors spread that the Taliban were systematically destroying thousands of ancient statues across Afghanistan. Reports soon confirmed an edict from Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader.

"These idols have been gods of the infidels, who worshiped them and these are respected even now and perhaps may be turned into gods again," Omar decreed. "If people say these are not our beliefs but only part of the history of Afghanistan, then all we are breaking are stones."

The Taliban's orgy of ruin reached a crescendo when the two colossal Bamiyan Buddhas, carved into a mountainside nearly 2,000 years ago, were bombed into nothingness.

Last week heritage has again turned hostage. Now, in Mosul, Iraq, Islamic State extremists released a video of their men methodically defiling museum pieces with sledgehammers and power drills. They claimed that the millennia-old sculptures promoted idolatry.

Although shocking, such destruction has become routine. Iraq's cultural heritage, along with the country's suffering citizens, has been a constant victim in its tragic war. Just weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the National Museum in Baghdad was looted. Since then, hundreds of Iraq's 12,500 known archaeological sites have been pillaged. (Much of this destruction is also financially motivated: Al Qaeda and IS have reportedly reaped millions of dollars from selling looted antiquities on the international art market.) The Islamic State has even destroyed holy mosques and Muslim shrines that compete with its unbending tenets. Just before the museum was assaulted this week, the Mosul Public Library was torched, rendering 10,000 books and manuscripts into ash and smoke.

We have entered a new age of iconoclasm in the Islamic world.

A bridge of history connects the ancient and contemporary destruction of images in the Middle East. Most agree that Islamic theology is neutral on the question of artistic representations. But in the first centuries after Islam's birth, some adherents sought to dramatically rebel against Christian imagery. Iconoclasm was a way to build a dogma and draw an ideological line between Us and Them. The devastation just witnessed in Mosul -- 1,200 years later -- is no different. It is a tool to brand radical Islam.

And yet, importantly, Islam does not have a monopoly on iconoclasm. The term "iconoclast" arose during the Byzantine Empire, when, in AD 725, insurgents within the Greek Orthodox Church launched a crusade against religious images. They believed, as the historian Leslie W. Barnard wrote, that "God alone, not matter, is entitled to reverence." A second long "age of iconoclasm" emerged in Western Europe during the Reformation, which targeted figurative church arts. In 1643, the English Commons even appointed the Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry. More recently, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, the eradication of cultural monuments was calculated to accompany ethnic cleansing.

Perhaps because so many nations around the world have suffered iconoclasm, most have finally come to understand that the malicious destruction of heritage violates not just objects but people. To destroy objects of identity is to destroy identity itself. It is meaningful that an iconoclast is defined as a destroyer of images that are venerated, and also a person who attacks cherished beliefs.

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is the best international legal instrument to confront these acts of violence. Adopted in the wake of the massive destruction of cultural heritage during World War II, today more than 115 countries are using the treaty to ensure that heritage survives humanity's worst. In 2009, the United States ratified the convention.

If the United States is to battle IS it must also fight on the frontlines of cultural heritage. We should become a world leader in promoting the Hague Convention. We should provide more funding through the convention for peacetime safeguarding measures. We should become heritage's fiercest advocate in the face of crisis. The convention cannot stop every act of carnage against the human past. But we must do what we can to protect the very objects of beauty and wonder that can transcend violence and connect us as human beings.

Chip Colwell
, PhD, is curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and author of the forthcoming book Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Return Native America's Treasures.