Conflict and Destroyed Culture: Understanding Cultural Genocide

As ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) continues to pillage, the casualties of its terror echo a tragic shock to our world as we have perceived it. To speak of the actions and repercussions of the movement, would be followed by tangents too convoluted to enclose in this short piece. I do, however, believe that more discussion should be proposed on what this means for the past-present-future of our geopolitical human existence. As we discuss things that matter most to us, I will narrow my focus to the discussion of destroyed heritage.

As an art history enthusiast, my academic inclinations have made me endorse the preservation and restoration of artifacts. I’ve come to understand that these artifacts represent our attempt at understanding our past. Perhaps, this urge to understand our human past is derived from an academic need to resolve questions of the present. The biggest challenge to this mode of thinking has been my understanding of political revolutions. How do I come to terms with the cultural casualties lost in China’s Cultural Revolution? Or the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues in 2001? Or the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in my own home country of India? As self-seeking as this may sound, these questions are lost research material, lost answers to several questions.

13_smallNaturally, my initial reaction to the news (and the accompanying videos) of the destruction of the Mosul Museum was of shock and anger. The video angered me. Then followed a string of other videos showing the destruction of other ancient relics and sites. Several friends and professors shared the same immediate opinion, that this was an act of barbaric, indoctrinatory fundamentalism.

Irina Bokova, director-general of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it a “new phase of cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq.” Yet these relics do not represent the challenge of the “antagonist western ideology” – what I think is imbibed in the prime agenda of the group. Rather, the destroyed artifacts are of their own history. To answer this question with the answer of religion is most simple. The militant groups’ aspiration for a homogeneous Islamic state demands the destruction of all non-Muslim cultural heritage.

To further complicate my perspective on these acts, I came across David Nersessian’s definition of “cultural genocide.” Professor Nersessian, Assistant Dean of Global Programs at Boston University’s School of Management, declared the need to rethink cultural genocide under International Law. Nersessian defines cultural genocide as:

“The abolition of a group’s language, restrictions upon its traditional practices and ways, the destruction of religious institutions and objects, the persecution of clergy members, and attacks on academics and intellectuals. Elements of cultural genocide are manifested when artistic, literary, and cultural activities are restricted or outlawed and when national treasures, libraries, archives, museums, artifacts, and art galleries are destroyed or confiscated.”

Nersessian proposes for cultural genocide to be recognized as “a unique wrong that should be recognized independently and that rises to the level of meriting individual criminal responsibility.” At this point, the discussion expands to a recognition that cultural history deserves the right to be preserved, and the use of the term “genocide” dictates an immediate menace, an extermination of human history. Human history, in this sense, specifically means a universal cultural heritage.

While the ethical wrong and the need for recognizing humanity’s right to cultural heritage has been addressed, the implications behind these demands still need to be examined. If a political or religious revolution aims to destroy cultural relics, does it really mean it is an attack on a universal heritage? Does the heritage denote a memory challenging the oppressed, or is it a memory that has no place in the envisioned future/modernity? Stating it as a cultural heritage for humanity also denotes a problem. Mainly, that the crime against cultural heritage could almost be a nonsensical proposition to someone who thinks differently. The cultural progression of humanity, for the other side, might just mean a negation of the past relics themselves.

Bringing in the case of “the other” takes a more rhetorical turn, however necessary. In his book, The Puppet and the Dwarf, philosopher Slavoj Žižek recognizes the problem that,

“[we] ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who live their culture immediately, those who lack a distance toward it. Recall our outrage when, two years ago, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us enlightened Westerners believe in the divinity of the Buddha, we were outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show appropriate respect for the ‘cultural heritage’ of their own country and the entire world. Instead of believing through the other, like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great sensitivity toward the cultural value of the monuments of other religions—to them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not ‘cultural treasures.’”

I suppose herein lies my biggest issue, that of academic discussion. While the other is often valued as an agency with complexities, when it comes to cases of fundamentalism, the other’s perspective is viewed in an entirely different light. After all, whose aesthetic perspective are we inclined towards? Maybe what matters most is a deeper, more critical understanding of the other and its motives? Perhaps, this is the first move towards a negation of our inherent biases, allowing for a better understanding of “fundamentalism” itself.

– Fileona 


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