University of Chicago
On February 26, 2015, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a film showing a group of men destroying ancient sculptures in the Mosul Museum, the second-largest holder of antiquities in Iraq. In the aftermath of this destruction, scholars, policymakers, and heads of state have denounced the episode as an attack on “humanity’s cultural heritage.” Despite their shared condemnation of ISIS, however, there is little agreement about either the core problem behind these events, or what to do about it. Some commentators blame religion, treating Mosul as an incident of iconoclasm promoted by radical Islam. Others frame the issue in humanitarian terms, wherein statue smashing is understood as part and parcel of ethnic cleansing. Underpinning all of the framings is the belief that ISIS members are barbarians, equally savage in combat and at the museum. None of the competing explanations fully addresses the heart of the matter: conflicting valuations of past materiality.
First, let’s review what we know about the events at Mosul.
On Thursday, February 26, the Islamic State posted the clip online. The film opens with a bearded man standing at the Nergal Gate, one of the monumental entrances to the ancient city of Nineveh. The man faces the camera and, gesturing to the sculpture behind him, explains that past peoples worshiped “idols and statues” instead of Allah. The Prophet Mohammed removed idols with his own hands when he arrived in Mecca, the man continues. “We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.” The camera then cuts to scenes of men working in small teams throughout the museum. Using sledgehammers, pickaxes, and drills, the ISIS men reduce the sculpture to rubble.
The film shocks, as much for its clarity as its incomprehensibility. Didn’t these guys get the memo? The sculptures are supposed to be their cultural legacy, their priceless and incomparable history. Targeting human “infidels” is brutal, but at least it is explainable by some geopolitical logic. Targeting ancient materiality, on the other hand, makes no sense. Just think of its value – as heritage marker, aesthetic gem, or tourist attraction.
ISIS did get the memo, and they sent it back. Yes, ancient materiality has a value, but not in the way of mainstream Western thinking. This repudiation is clear in the narrator’s final sentence: “We do not care, even if it costs us billions of dollars.”
It helps to think of these questions of value in terms of moral economies. Moral economy was used by E.P. Thompson (1964) to refer to a system of valuation and exchange of goods shaped by community mores rather than free-market profit motives. James C. Scott (1976: 3) elaborated the term in The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Explaining the centrality of a “subsistence ethic” to rural agricultural communities in Southeast Asia, Scott identifies “[p]atterns of reciprocity, forced generosity, communal land, and work-sharing […]” as key features of local production and consumption. In both scholars’ theories of moral economy, social values and shared ethics trump profit and operational efficiency.
Condemnations of the ISIS attacks reveal a specific form of moral economy, that of past materiality. Sustaining it is an ideal of pricelessness: namely, that old things are so symbolically important as to transcend monetized economic processes. The roots of this ideal can be traced at least as far as the Enlightenment, though antecedents can be identified in much earlier places and in non-Western contexts as well. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the notion of a common human heritage was elucidated, codified, and policed. The 1954 Hague Convention, for instance, declares that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”
This particular moral economy of past materiality is now so commonplace that its novelty is obscured. Throughout time, old things have been venerated, traded, and preserved—as well as appropriated, maimed, and destroyed—by a range of people, acting on a plurality of motives and interests (Schnapp 1997). In their day, cultural objects existed in a nexus of economies, among them symbolic, political, and monetary. By contrast, we have distilled that complex of value practices to a single currency: historical data. This distillation was made possible by the rise of scientific archaeology in the late 19th century (Ceserani 2012), and its conjunction with “heritage” was soldered in the fiery rhetoric of nationalism during the same period.
Heritage, however, is only one of several possible discourses that can be attached to objects (Byrne 2014). Other discourses – “art,” “commodity”, “political symbol,” “rubbish” – are also present at any given time. Defining and protecting sculptures as “heritage objects” works only so long as everybody more or less agrees that they are worth saving. This assumption broke down with ISIS because its members looked at ancient sculptures and saw offensive symbols rather than priceless heritage.
Heritage is mutable, and it is always political. This is why successful efforts to protect historic cultural objects must improve on such bland imperatives as “take pride in your heritage” or “history is part of your identity.” History isn’t always a source of pride, and it is not necessarily interchangeable with heritage (Zubrzycki 2013). Consider again the smashed-up sculptures at Mosul. Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BCE, was a notoriously harsh ruler who massacred civilians and bragged in a monumental inscription of annihilating dissidents and “[treading] upon the necks of his foes” (Taylor 2015). Now his monumental gate is missing, presumed looted or pulverized. Perhaps Mosul is just a case of delayed justice, in which one set of conquerors upends another. In this reading, history is part of local identity, but for an ironic reason: by destroying the sculptures, ISIS made them relevant again.
The notion that destruction may abet revitalization is, at first glance, counterintuitive. Pulverizing a statue with a sledgehammer is bad for the statue as an object. It will break it, perhaps beyond repair, leaving behind mere fragments of a once-complete body. At the same time, however, the sledgehammer also transforms the statue as a subject. Suddenly, the statue becomes relevant in multiple dimensions as a contested symbol and a potential threat to the social order. The statue may cease to exist as a statue, but its bundled meanings are released through the act of shattering.
Object-destruction, therefore, may be symbolically productive. And there are clearly cases in which most of us would support the destruction or removal of cultural objects. After all, was toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in April 2003 an act of cultural vandalism? How about the destruction of pro-Nazi monuments in post-war Germany? This is why the insurgents’ claim to be acting ethically by resisting idolatry cannot be dismissed out of hand. Categorical condemnation of cultural object destruction is unsustainable. If the Mosul action is to be opposed, it must be on the basis of a coherently argued position.
In many respects, ISIS’s iconoclasm argument is wrong. The Mosul Museum statues portrayed secular leaders and mythical figures, and were never objects of religious worship. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that they encouraged idolatry among modern adherents of Islam. Islamic leaders across the globe have condemned ISIS’s action on these grounds. More broadly, ISIS’s program of cultural object destruction can be opposed in light of its place in a broader program apparently focused on the elimination of ethnic minority communities. International conventions, including the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, declare the preservation of practices, places, and things that link a community with its history a legal imperative, to be balanced with the right to religious expression. A position starting from this basic observation would allow a more robust defense of cultural objects that avoids the drawbacks of appeals to a “universal cultural heritage”.
The moral economy of the past will not be abolished, and it probably shouldn’t be. The solution, instead, is to improve it. We need to rethink the relationship between cultural materiality and living human societies, and we need to support economic and social justice in communities in which cultural violence is an easy response to poverty and loss. In this way, the Mosul Museum attack may be remembered, not as an end to the ancient statues, but instead as the beginning of a more sustainable framework for protecting past materiality in its diverse, complicated, and sometimes incomprehensible currency.
 See, for example, “UNESCO Director General condemns destruction of Nimrud in Iraq,” UNESCO Media Services, March 6, 2015. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/unesco_director_general_condemns_destruction_of_nimrud_in_iraq/back/9597/#.VR1BHb_Y_Gz
 For instance, Zainab Bahrani has argued that “it’s a form of ethnic cleansing because this is a region of the world—Mesopotamia has always been a multicultural, mutli-ethnic, multilinguistic and multireligious community, the entirety of the country. And what’s happening now is that diversity is being wiped out. And it’s a way of creating a terra nulla, if you will, a kind of an empty land that you can conquer and then claim that there was nothing there before.” Zainab Bahrani speaking on Democracy Now! Feb. 27, 2015. http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/27/antiquities_scholar_islamic_states_destruction_of
 For a frame-by-frame analysis of the Mosul Museum episode: https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com
 Translation taken from the International Business Times: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/iraq-isis-take-sledgehammers-priceless-assyrian-artefacts-mosul-museum-video-1489616
 Preamble to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocols. For a historical and legal discussion of the 1954 Hague Convention, see Gerstenblith (2006).
 The tight coupling of scientific archaeology and identity politics continues to this day (Rose-Greenland 2013).
Byrne, Denis. 2014. Counterheritage: Critical Perspectives on Heritage Conservation in Asia. London: Routledge.
Ceserani, Giovanna. 2012. Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gerstenblith, Patty. 2006. Art, Cultural Heritage, and the Law. Cases and Materials, pp. 529-535. 2nd edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Rose-Greenland, Fiona. 2013. “Seeing the Unseen: Prospective Loading and Knowledge Forms in Archaeological Discovery.” Qualitative Sociology 36(3): 251-77.
Schnapp, Alain. 1997. The Discovery of the Past. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Scott, James C. 1976. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Taylor, Jonathan. 2015. The Standard Inscription of Assurnasirpal II. Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production. The Nimrud Project at Oracc.org: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/nimrud/livesofobjects/standardinscription
Thompson, E.P. 1964. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon.
Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2013. Aesthetic revolt and the remaking of national identity in Québec, 1960-1969. Theory and Society 42(5): 423-475.