Opinion: ′IS′ attempts to distort the past will fail | Opinion | DW | 01.03.2015
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Opinion: 'IS' attempts to distort the past will fail

Members of the "Islamic State" have smashed Iraqi artifacts from pre-Islamic times as part of their cultural attack on dissidents. But a radical crusade of this kind cannot continue forever, writes DW's Kersten Knipp.

Just a few blows of the hammer were enough to destroy the ancient statues. The mob deployed by the "Islamic State" only needed several minutes to demolish a piece of cultural heritage not only representative of Iraq but also of the whole Middle East.

This seemingly uninhibited destructive force is a political strategy. It demonstrates nothing less than the group's intent to unravel the identity of a whole region - an identity based on cultural diversity, part of which is heritage from the pre-Islamic era, such as the statues that have been destroyed.

Anything pre-Islamic is a provocation for IS. While it bullies, kills and drives out those of a different faith, it also seeks to eliminate remnants of history that do not match its concept of society. Mass murder and iconoclasm are just two sides of the same coin.

Cultural crime as a sacred mission

However, iconoclasts throughout history have had to learn that their efforts were in vain. There have always been attempts to destroy the old and replace it with something new. In the Book of Exodus of the Bible's Old Testament, the prophet Moses is called upon to start afresh on arrival in the promised land. He is forbidden to accept the cult followed by the locals and is ordered to destroy their altars and places of worship.

One of the greatest achievements of modernity has been outlawing such destruction. But the practice still hasn't been eliminated everywhere in the world - in fact, cultural warfare has overall intensified. This has especially been the case in the field of architecture and visual art.

Part of European history too

When French forces marched into Algiers, Algeria, in 1830, they demolished the city's central districts and constructed a large square for military parades. It was a clear signal to the locals that a new era was dawning and all resistance was futile. This attack on architecture was followed by draconian measures against all those who dared to raise protest.

Kersten Knipp

DW's Kersten Knipp

The iconoclasts of the 20th century were even more rigorous. In November 1938, Germany's National Socialists set synagogues on fire, marking the start of a campaign of destruction against European Jews. In 1931, Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior was detonated on Stalin's orders to make room for the Palace of the Soviets. And although this building was never erected, the radical act of the detonation made it clear what the new norms were.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge launched an attack on the country's monasteries before targeting all people who, in their eyes, had committed unforgivable sins by choosing to live in urban centers instead of the countryside. Both lifestyles - the contemplative self-awareness of the monastery and the sophisticated culture of the cities - didn't reflect the proletarian-agrarian ideal propagated by the Khmer Rouge. In the course of their battle against reality, the Khmer Rouge sent around two million people to their deaths.

In 1991, the Serbian army destroyed the city of Vukovar in Croatia. The aim was to rebuild it in a Serb-Byzantine style that had never actually previously existed.

Compensation for a "lost paradise"

In spite of all the supposed enlightenment of the modern era, the sad truth is that it sometimes unwillingly fosters this form of cultural sabotage. If modernity represents an epoch in which traditions play a smaller role than before, some people start searching for new sources of meaning and orientation in their lives. Seen from this perspective, all totalitarian ideologies are nothing more than powerful compensative undertakings. Nationalism and communism can be seen as attempts to replace a lost paradise with a new one. Today's jihadism has exactly this kind of aim: Its supporters dream of a new paradise on Earth - a ruling caliphate.

Even if the jihadists don't want to admit this, their crusade is proof of how modern the Middle East has become. And just like other extremist movements before it, the "Islamic State" will only exist for a limited time. Its destructive campaign will be its own downfall in the end, because nowhere in the world do people like having their thoughts and beliefs dictated to them in the long term.

Just like others affected by totalitarian movements, most Iraqis and Syrians see the grim directives laid down by the jihadists as an obscenely high price to pay for the alleged salvation promised by the terrorists in return. The IS won't be able to forever manipulate the present and distort the past. Until then, the road to hell will continue to be paved with seemingly good intentions.

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