It is characteristic of totalitarian societies that they feel they need control over the past as well as the present.
So it’s hard not to see an echo of Stalin’s erasure of his former comrades in the deliberate destruction of ancient artefacts and archaeological sites by the Islamic State.
The difference being that when IS bulldoze the 3000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud, as they reportedly did last week, they’re not just trying to erase their victims’ history, but humanity’s history as well.
In late February the United Nations released a report describing IS persecution of Christians, Shiah Muslims and religious minorities like the Yazidis as “war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide”. IS has been murdering gay men and politically active women. It is guilty of genocidal atrocities on a historical and savage scale.
Among this human slaughter the destruction of a few antiquities might seem like a small thing. And of course it is. But it still offers a revealing window into the mindset of radical Islamism.
By now everyone has seen photographs and video of IS militants smashing up statues in the Mosul museum last month. Happily some of those were plaster replicas. Not all were.
In the last few days IS has apparently been tearing down the ruins of the ancient Iraqi city of Hatra.
The most prominent Islamist destruction was that of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – two towering Buddha statues in Afghanistan dynamited by the Taliban in March 2001.
Obviously much of the destruction is deliberately done for Western eyes. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was one of the rare times Afghanistan made headlines before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The Taliban sent mixed messages about the purpose of the destruction of the Buddhas. Some officials claimed it was done for standard iconoclastic reasons. An Islamic state could not tolerate the image of an idol from another religion.
But a Taliban envoy to the United States offered a more prosaic, political reason: the Buddhas were destroyed because the West was only offering aid money to restore statues rather than to prevent malnutrition.
The footage of the Mosul museum and Bamiyan Buddhas was broadcast across the world. One Syrian anthropologist told the New York Times in February that “it’s all a provocation”.
And it is true that IS’s iconoclastic principles don’t apparently prevent them from exploiting the lucrative black market for antiquities.
Nevertheless, IS relishes its reputation for brutality and inhumanity. That reputation is part of its recruiting strategy. It offers foreign fighters an absolute break with, and resistance to, the Western world – an ascetic and violent Islamism that is totalitarian in the truest sense of the word. It believes in nothing except itself.
This brutality is its reason for existence. It is what makes the Islamic State, in its mind, the bona fide caliphate, rather than just another militant theocracy in the Middle East.
Last week two writers at the Daily Beast said we shouldn’t attribute this historical destruction to “militant Islam” – lots of totalitarian states try to erase the past.
This is like saying we shouldn’t blame fascism for German atrocities between 1933 and 1945.
And IS’s symbolic ambitions are greater than their 20th century predecessors. Where Hitler and Stalin sought to rewrite history, Islamist totalitarians are trying to destroy it.
Much of the destruction is taking place out of the eyes of the West. Some we only learn about through rumours and unconfirmed reports. For instance, a stunning Ottoman castle in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar has been destroyed – we think. IS has been destroying Christian monasteries, Yezidi shrines and Muslim mosques, both Shiah and Sunni, with little reaction in the West. In Mali Islamist radicals destroyed ancient libraries and tombs.
This destruction isn’t just a calculating provocation for the benefit of Western audiences. It’s ideological.
Worse than those who would downplay the role of Islamist radicalism in this arc of destruction are cultural relativists that excuse it.
Take this academic paper, which condemns not the destruction of the Buddhas but “Western Civilisation’s … fundamentalist ideology of heritage preservation”. The Taliban’s dynamite was just part of the back and forth of history. Why are we so precious? “This paper should not be read as a call for more destruction,” the author says. But, as they say, if you have to write it…
In fact, the Islamist war against artefacts and archaeology is part of a broader “cultural terrorism” being waged around the world, where the target is not an enemy but their idea of themselves.
The Charlie Hebdo killers – and all those who have threatened cartoonists and critics with murder – waged this sort of cultural terrorism as well: attacking not just people, but ideas and symbols that speak to how we understand ourselves. We think of ourselves as an open society, they try to close it by force.
David Hume believed that from the diversity of history we discover the “constant and universal principles of human nature”. By trying to destroy their own heritage, IS and other Islamists are trying to separate themselves from the world.