ISIS and the Cleansing of a Culture

“Nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing under way in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage.” – Irina Bukova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 6 March 2015


Since ISIS launched its bloody and brutal territorial seizure in the summer of 2014, thousands of civilians in Iraq and Syria have lost their lives to the group’s heavy-handed interpretation of Islam. A report by the Iraq Body Count monitoring project shows that approximately 4,325 civilians were killed by ISIS last year in Iraq alone. According to estimates made in late 2014, more than 20,000 foreign fighters from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and the West joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. More than one-fifth were from Western Europe. Then there are the refugees and internally displaced people, who, after witnessing the death of loved ones or seeing their homes ripped from them, are forced to watch the destruction of their culture and their ties to the land.

While ISIS continues to claim future generations, it makes casualties of histories and cultures that have been on this earth for centuries. Evidence of the rich history and diversity of the region are being erased, sometimes in minutes, and in its stead, ISIS establishes its narrow view of religion, history, art – all humanity. What is taking place is truly cultural genocide.

Destruction of monuments and relics from civilizations past is not a new phenomenon. Conquerors and warring parties have historically sought to assert their military dominance through siege and pillage—from the Crusades of the Middle Ages to Nazi plunder of European cultural legacies and Soviet vandalism of Russian cultural monuments and cathedrals.

Islamic extremists have adopted these same tactics en masse decades later: In 2001, the Taliban exploded 1,700 year-old sandstone statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan. In 2012, Ansar Dine attacked Timbuktu in Mali, a hub of trade and Islamic learning that flourished from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Ansar Dine destroyed tombs containing antiquities, battered down the door of a 15th century mosque, and set fire to libraries containing ancient manuscripts. That same year, Fundamentalist Salafist Muslims targeted Sufi heritage sites in Libya and Egypt.

What sets ISIS apart is its scale of wanton destruction in such a short period of time and the extent to which this destruction is used for propaganda and profit. ISIS has razed its way through many historical sites, even publicizing their attacks.

  • Summer of 2014: According to Human Rights Watch, in June 2014, ISIS destroys seven Shiite places of worship in the city of Tal Afar, kidnapping 40 Shia Turkmen in the process.  On July 25, ISIS extremists explode the Tomb of Jonah, located in a Sunni mosque also called the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Mosul. Jonah was a key figure in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. ISIS also blows up several Sunni holy sites during the summer.
  • February 26, 2015: ISIS strikes again in Mosul. Videos show ISIS destroying 7th century stone statues from Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city, housed in a Mosul Museum. Thousands of books and manuscripts, containing ancient narratives, are destroyed in Mosul’s libraries.
  • March 5, 2015: Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities confirms that ISIS bulldozed the ancient Nimrud archeological site near Mosul, using heavy military vehicles.  Nimrud, also Assyrian, was founded more than 3,300 years ago. Director General at UNESCO, Irina Bokova declares, “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. There is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.”
  • March 7, 2015: Iraqi officials report that ISIS desecrates the ancient city of Hatra, completely bulldozing the ruins of the UNESCO heritage site. The city was founded during the Parthian Empire more than 2,000 years ago. Unlike the destruction of Assyrian heritage sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, Hatra or Al-Hadr reflects a combination of Greco-Roman and eastern influence, including temples dedicated to Apollo and Poseidon. The Iraq Tourism and Antiquities Ministry blames the international community for failing to help Iraq protect its ancient monuments.
  • March 12, 2015: Iraqi antiquities director, Qais Rasheed reports that Khorasabad, a 2,700-year-old city famed for its colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls, has been ransacked and razed by ISIS. Without satellite imagery, it is difficult to assess the damage to the three square kilometer site, but Rasheed confirms that looting took place and the ancient city’s walls were demolished. 

The very fabric of the region’s religious and cultural history has been reduced to tatters and bare threads. One’s initial reaction is, “Why? Why this seemingly nihilistic destruction of priceless artefacts?” The “because” is dual, there is a push and a pull.  David Pinault explains that ISIS uses Quranic scripture and accounts of the Prophet Muhammad himself to justify attacks on these regional treasures.The video showing the destruction of the Mosul Museum is accompanied by elegant chants that quote Quranic verses describing Abraham, a key figure in both Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, smashing his father’s idols. An ISIS extremist goes on to remind viewers that even Muhammad “removed and destroyed the idols with his own exalted and noble hands when he conquered Mecca.”

This justification tactic is utter hypocrisy, according to Peter Webly of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation: “While it is true that Muhammad ordered the destruction of the pagan idols in the Ka’aba… the mere existence of such an extensive pre-Islamic heritage across most of the Muslim world reveals the lie that ISIS is emulating the practice of his [Muhammad] companions when it conquered other lands…” Furthermore, the fact that ISIS is involved in the illicit trade of antiquities and materials such as gold, tarnishes their ‘holier-than-thou’ literalism.

ISIS’s war path decimates culture and history because they stand to gain a lot from their heinous acts. The benefit of destruction is two-fold – profit and propaganda. The same destruction meant to rid Iraq and Syria of its ‘false idols’ is ultimately allowing the group to capitalize on ruination. The profit from the illicit trade of stolen antiquities perpetuates inestimable harm. According to a Wall Street Journal report on the heroes attempting to curb antiquities smuggling, looting is ISIS’ second-largest source of revenue after oil. An Iraqi official also claims that ISIS has made as much as $36 million from one single area at al-Nabek in Syria, an early Christian site known for its mosaics. ISIS has even established an office to deal specifically with looted antiquities. The whole racket is simply not in line with their violent literalism and public justifications for destroying heritage sites. If the Quran told them to destroy, why profit?

Then there is the message. What better propaganda is there for young extremists? “Here it is, your opportunity to follow in the footsteps of prophets, Abraham and Muhammad. It is your chance, confused youth, to rail against mundane life in pluralistic societies. Come with us and destroy the past.” 

It is clear that ISIS, so self-righteous in their actions, seeks not merely to destroy blasphemous ‘false idols’—they want to obliterate the cultural origins of the very people they are attempting to suck into their caliphate. They are destroying the past so that they might rewrite a rich history and protect their violent future.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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