It seems that nobody gets upset anymore about severed heads in Iraq and in Syria, the work of Islamic State jihadist terrorists. At a certain point, even atrocities become routine.
But the destruction of antiquities is a completely different story. Maybe that is why the recent Islamic State takeover of the Syrian city of Palmyra, home to many antiquities, made more headlines than the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, which took place just a few hours earlier.
Islamic State propagandists are using this bit of information to garner the locals’ support—or at least the support of those the group has not killed. The West, they say, cares nothing about Muslim civilians; it cares only about the ancient stones. This may explain the findings of the astonishing poll that the Al Jazeera network published this week, in which 81 percent of respondents in the Arab world supported Islamic State. And to think that most of Islamic State’s victims are actually Muslims.
After the Taliban destroyed the 1,600-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, the world was reintroduced to those who wanted not only to cut down the tree, but to pull out the stump as well. In recent decades Islam has given rise to many such groups, which compete among themselves for the title of the most radical organization. As far as they are concerned, killing infidels is not enough; every trace of them must be wiped out, human beings and their culture, too. This is no ad hoc decision, but a deliberate doctrine. The year is 2015, but the Vandals and the Huns of the new era are barbarians, just as their predecessors were.
Similar events have also taken place in the mystery-shrouded Malian city of Timbuktu. Libraries in that city contain rare manuscripts from the time of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), whose rulers controlled most of the Muslim empire. The Islamist rebels there—a kind of Islamic State for beginners, if you will—who tried to take over Mali had no qualms about setting two libraries ablaze in order to wipe out what they considered to be heresy.
Nineveh, a later capital of the Assyrian Empire that contains a major archaeological site, paid the price of its proximity to the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to Islamic State. Last July, the terror group destroyed the area in Mosul where many people believe the prophet Jonah is buried.
Explosions were heard in northern Iraq on April 2, 2015, when Islamic State razed Tel Nimrud, one of the most significant and ancient archaeological sites on earth, to its foundations. I visited there in October 2001, when Saddam Hussein was still in charge. At the time, I never would have dreamed that I was documenting a place that today would no longer exist.
Nimrud himself would not have believed that in the modern age, a group comprised a few tens of thousands of bearded radicals, driving jeeps in the desert, would succeed in destroying statues that had lasted for more than 3,000 years. Archaeological treasures turned to dust within seconds. The world looked on in shock, unable to do much more than that.
It is possible that the Assyrian army, which was the strongest and best-trained of its time, would have prevented the destruction. Maybe it could have dealt with Islamic State; it certainly would have done a better job than mighty America and the coalition that it established. The Assyrians had no fighter jets. Maybe that is why they won.
Now, the antiquities in Palmyra are in the crosshairs. They could be destroyed at any moment unless Islamic State is pushed back. Nobody is talking any longer about the 500 or more people who have been beheaded since the city’s capture.
If one were to ask Islamic State, the destruction of the antiquities is a matter of ideology. After all, Islamic State is a radical Sunni group that seeks to re-establish an Islamic caliphate. Lately, the Muslim world has seen all too many such groups, which for some reason are afflicted with a nostalgic yearning for the seventh century.
Religious aspects aside, Islamic State has also discovered the public relations potential in destroying antiquities. The global media is covering the story widely; the looting of the museum in Mosul and the destruction of the ancient monastery of St. George there several months ago gave Islamic State a great deal of publicity, as well as funds. The group’s leaders also have no problem selling antiquities to subsidize continued fighting. Their enormous revenue from crude oil does not seem to be enough.
There is no doubt that Islamic State owes its success to a series of factors, among them, of course, the disintegration of the nation-state idea in the Arab world. The weakness of the regimes in Syria, Iraq and Libya enabled Islamic State to gain a foothold in those countries. In Syria, too, for example, Islamic State takes advantage of the West’s hostility towards the Syrian regime.
Even if Washington is resigned to Assad staying in power (what won’t it do for the sake of a nuclear deal with Iran?), it still cannot help him on the ground. Perhaps that is the reason the jihadists’ advance was not stopped in the desert, lest such an act be seen as aiding the Syrian regime. Israel is stuck with a neighbor whose backward, dark, and deadly regime runs a country torn to fragments, and the cruelest group on earth is gaining ground. Who would have believed that two disasters of such magnitude would strike Syria at the same time?
And in this situation, on whom is the American president betting? On Iran. True, in the current state of affairs the Shi’a militias in Iraq—sponsored by Iran—can win the fight against Islamic State. But woe to the population and woe to the Middle East that lives under Iranian influence. President Barack Obama does not get it: He is letting the cat guard the cream.
It is high time that the U.S. administration understood the core problem in the Middle East, that too many groups seek to replace the existing order with an Islamic caliphate. The president needs to wake up, because it seems that here in the Middle East, we have gone back to the Stone Age.
Boaz Bismuth is a correspondent and columnist for Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed exclusively by JNS.org.