ISIS (also known as IS, or ISIL), has dominated headlines for over a year now. The ultra-radical militant group has occupied an astonishing amount of territory, stretching across northern Iraq and into into Syria, with outposts along the Euphrates. As Libya continues to slide into chaos, it has seen an uptick in ISIS-aligned fighters, raising fears of yet another country losing territory to what has quickly become the most visible standard-bearer for radical jihadism.
The group’s success has in part come at the expense of other Islamic radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, which lack a flair for social media and 21st century technologies. Young recruits have flocked to take up arms in the pseudo-state, and according to analysts this is due in part to aggressive online marketing campaigns. From featuring a Canadian recruit playing ice hockey to memes that reference popular violent games, ISIS propagandists create videos and communications that appeal to youth sensibilities. These ploys – combined with filmed beheadings and immolations – are part of a larger effort to catch the world’s eye.
The most recent propaganda effort? The destruction of art.
International institutions such as UNESCO and various NGOs are struggling to come up with meaningful solutions to protect world heritage artifacts in the wake of the highly publicized destruction of ancient Greco-Roman and ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at an antiquities museum in Mosul – the northern Iraq city currently held by ISIS militants. Underscoring the often contradictory blend of radical ideology and self-serving pragmatism, ISIS militants obliterated priceless statues while purportedly carting off others to traffic on the black market.
Pending deputy ambassador to the Libyan delegation at UNESCO Hafed Walda has called for the fortification of museums in Libya. Al-Gailani Werr, a London-based archeologist, remarks on the global nature of this cultural violence: “These things are part of the history of humanity . . . If you destroy them, you’re destroying the history of everyone.”
For violent political groups, the destruction of art is a forceable way of annihilating perceived threats to cultural hegemony and legitimacy. From the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to Nazi Germany, obliterating cultural artifacts was part and parcel with a greater authoritarian design for control and discrimination.
Indeed, the mere fact that ISIS went out of its way to destroy material objects it construed as fundamental threats to its fragile world-view underscores the democratic nature and resilience of art. This is why a guarantee of protection for cultural rights is enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and why so many nonprofits the world-over dedicate so much time and so many resources to ensure that everyone the world over has his/her cultural privileges upheld.
As the turmoil rages on and more lives and cultural heritages are lost to ISIS’ extremism, arts nonprofits should feel emboldened in their pursuit of universal accessibility to cultural artifacts and experience. As Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, states:
When culture is under attack, we must respond with more knowledge, and with ever greater effort to work to explain the importance of humanity’s shared heritage. This is why we appeal to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share knowledge widely about the Mesopotamian civilization. We need to remind all of the history of this land which led the Islamic golden age.
Nonprofits possess a fundamental role in Ms. Bokova’s call-to-action. In the face of nihilistic destruction and violence, the celebration and protection of culture is part of the remedy for peace.