THE BLOG

Libraries Burning: From Sarajevo to Mosul

02/26/2015 09:39 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

I have been involved with words throughout my life. My father was a writer, publisher, and bookseller. I have been a writer, publisher, and bookseller. I have worked my way through three collections of rare books: one on Communism, one on literary and artistic modernism, one on Islam (with a small sub-set on Sephardic Judaism). I stored the first -- volumes of Lenin are now unsellable -- and sold the second so I could live in the Muslim Balkans. I remain surrounded by the last.

But I no longer purchase books for their own sake, or for their novelty. I keep books I will need. And I feel guilty about possessing valuable books when, for 23 years, I have been troubled by memories of their ravaging by ideological marauders.

On Sunday, February 22, the black-clad gangsters of the so-called "Islamic State" blew up the public library of Mosul, the Iraqi city they have occupied since the middle of last year. This vandalism was preceded in December by "Islamic State" arson against the Mosul University central library.

It is reported that 8,000 books and manuscripts were left in ashes at the Mosul public library. The institution's now-devastated holdings included Ottoman-era manuscripts, the first printed books in the ancient Syriac language, produced in the 19th century, old periodicals, and valuable artifacts including an astrolabe, a navigational instrument invented in the classical world and refined by Muslim science.

Faced with the image of books burning in Mosul, I was reminded inevitably of the ruination of the great National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. In that dreadful incident, hundreds of thousands of books, periodicals, and hand-written records were lost in a blaze caused by rocket attacks. In a similar crime, earlier that year, the archive of the Oriental Institute of Sarajevo, comprising masses of manuscripts in Bosnian, Turkish, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic, was obliterated after the Institute's targeting by artillery.

Knowing of the catastrophic effect of this terrorism on Bosnian cultural heritage, I resolved to do what I could, in a small way, to repair it. I donated most of my collection of Sephardica, then in its first iteration, to the University of Sarajevo. I discovered that books abandoned in houses wrecked during the three-year siege of the city were, after the war, sold on the streets. I searched through them, looking for items from libraries. Preservation of some books was enabled by the failure of people to return them to the libraries on time. After the horrors Sarajevo underwent, books ended up orphaned, and offered for low prices at a tramway stop.

In another relevant event, the warehouse maintained by a major Bosnian publisher, Svjetlost [Enlightenment] at Blažuj, outside the city, was leveled, and many books were incinerated. I was interested especially in finding a Bosnian-language study of the country's Sephardic literary tradition, Jevrejsko Španjolska Književnost (Jewish Spanish Literature) by a friend and mentor, the late professor Muhamed (Hamo) Nezirović of the University of Sarajevo. He told me the book had been published so soon before the Bosnian war commenced that few had come out of the Svjetlost depository.

When I found 50 copies of Hamo's book for sale at a bookshop -- new, and still at their prewar low price -- I was amazed, and bought them all to present to their author. The bookseller had taken delivery of an advance order only two weeks before combat began in Bosnia.

In Mosul, the despoilers of books acted in the name of Islam. In the Bosnian war, they were Serbs, claiming to defend Christendom. In both cases, the intent was the same: the eradication of historical memory. The so-called "Islamic State" wishes to wipe 1,400 years of civilization from the minds of Muslims. The Serbs sought to remove the evidence of four centuries in Bosnia, when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony.

There are, of course, more such cases, but those I studied in the Balkan wars and their aftermath weigh heaviest on me. In Kosovo, Serb forces assaulted the shrine and library of the Bektashi Sufis in the multireligious city of Gjakova. The inventory lost there included a 1,000-page manuscript by a Kosovar Sufi, Baba Qazim Bakalli, who during the 20th century went on foot from the Balkans to India to investigate Buddhism.

Much effort has been expended in trying to analyze why the "Islamic State" so dedicates itself to brutal atrocities. In addition to murdering thousands of people, Muslim, Christian, and affiliated with smaller sects that have survived for millennia in the region, they raze libraries. Such fanaticism is a reflection of the metastasized form of Wahhabism the "Islamic State" has imposed, in which the diverse legacy of the Muslim world is declared to deserve annihilation, on the pretext of religious purification. In the Balkans, Serbia conducted "ethnic cleansing" -- a repellent euphemism for "ethnic purging." The "Islamic State" is bent on "theological cleansing," which amounts to the same evil impulse.

I and my colleagues have been criticized for putting the defense of Islamic monuments ahead of the winning of military battles and rescue of people. But as John Milton wrote, in defense of free printing, "as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye." While moderate Muslims unite with non-Muslims to defeat the "Islamic State," let us remember its victims of paper and ink no less than those of flesh and blood. Let us commit to the complete restoration of libraries in Mosul, in Sarajevo, and everywhere else religious and ethnic extremism has revealed its malevolent consequences.