Cultural Commodities in the Time of ISIS

Natalie Tan - Singapore

The influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continues to swell. Its ideological narrative, fuelled by a vast organizational income, continues to grow because of lucrative resource control—not only over land and oil but also over culture. Through claiming cultural resources and artifacts, ISIS gains both rhetorical power through their symbolic destruction, and concrete power through monetized sales.

In May, ISIS took the city of Palmyra, destroying both the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel. As of September, they had destroyed an additional 2,000-year-old temple, demolishing it to rubble with explosives.  The American Schools of Oriental has estimated about 1,200 of about 7,000 satellite monitored archaeological sites have been damaged since the war began. UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Aleppo, Palymra, Bosra, Khorsabad, Mosul, Hatra and Nimrod have all been damaged or destroyed by ISIS.

The destruction of antiquities is a form of cultural terrorism derived from the value these objects have within society. Insofar as culture is a unifying national force, cultural artifacts have several layers of importance to a homeland.

Primarily, they are evidence of a nation’s history and continuity; they establish a national timeline across millennia. As items or art, they have inherent aesthetic value, but their symbolic value from additional religious or cultural import grants them a subsequent layer of beauty. They serve to represent ancestors, founders, and citizens who may be long gone, but whose achievements within the state remain. This is why we build museums and cultural centres to protect ancient artifacts, and why we experience powerful feelings of awe when we see them—they are indeed symbols of identity. And as aspects of a human history, their destruction is impactful beyond national borders.

Thus, when ISIS destroys religious monuments, crushes historical ruins, or loots for smaller artifacts, they symbolically kill a kind of identity. France’s ambassador to UNESCO, Philippe Lalliot, explains their actions as cultural cleansing, as “heritage unites and culture provides dialogue that fanatical groups want to destroy.” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova continues that “extremists don’t destroy heritage as a collateral damage, they target it systematically to strike societies at their core. This strategy seeks to destroy identities by eliminating heritage and cultural markers.”

While the destruction of these items gives ISIS narrative power to grow their prescribed form of Islam, their acts of cultural cleansing also confer on them the ability to expand concrete power. The absolute unique, irreplaceable value of ancient artifacts makes them scarce, and therefore immensely valuable. Through indirect taxes on the way to a final point of sale, selling and taxing these items contributes to the vast income ISIS uses to finance group operations and terrorist activities—the costs of holding land, paying fighters and administering a caliphate are paid through extortions, oil revenue, kidnappings, and now, cultural sales.

ISIS claims revenue from the acquirement of artifacts both directly and indirectly. The G-7 Financial Action Task Force reported in February that income was generated by selling items directly, and also by taxing the criminal gangs who dig at sites within ISIS territory. Then, antiquities are moved by middle men through Turkey, travelling through the Balkans to reach the world’s largest antiquity markets of the United States and Britain, and rapidly growing markets in China.

To further maximize indirect profits, through the ISIS toted Islamic brand, individuals are allowed to collect and sell ghanima, war spoils, and are often encouraged by leaders to loot and sell artifacts in exchange for a levy. Shariah provisions pay the state a percentage of treasure value for items taken from ‘national’ ground. Specifically, artifacts dating between the 14th and 16th century are taxed at higher rates, or confiscated for sale.  

No source can perfectly estimate how much income ISIS has received through the sale of these pieces. However, common estimates are in the hundreds of millions, knowing that some pieces can be worth between $500,000 and $1,000,000 individually. With dealers being paid a mere fraction of the final sale price, the profit margin via the sheer number of artifacts being sold is not insignificant.

In February, an existing ban on the illicit sale of Iraqi artifacts from 2003 was added to by the United Nations, who passed a resolution to additionally forbid the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. Further, trade in any artifacts from Syria has been halted.

These international bans do not make antiquity sales impossible. First, it is hard to expressly control for never-been-seen, and thus never-been-registered pieces that were newly excavated and sold without any documentation to prove they exist.  Black markets can be notoriously difficult to control and monitor. With no reports of major, museum-quality pieces showing up in European or North American auction houses, we assume that pieces from ISIS-held territory are being purchased by private collectors, or are being held for slow release over future months to discretely enter the market.

Similar issues were faced in 2003 Iraq, when widespread reports of archaeological plunders appeared to be the work of Al Qaeda, seeking to fund activities with illicit antiquity sales. This time, however, the sheer scale and systematic nature of the looting  makes ISIS’ particularly challenging.

Released last week, the World’s Monument Fund did not name any Syrian (nor Afghani, Iraqi, Yemeni or Libyan) cultural heritage sites as endangered, perhaps being specifically wary of indirectly glorifying ISIS propaganda through the destruction of cultural treasures.

However, some response must occur. As Bokovo mentions, even if we do not value their protection for reasons of heritage, “hard power will not be enough to defeat violent extremism… We also need soft power. Culture should be a part of our response to violent extremism”. The first step is to document existing pieces of heritage, to be able to track their protection. The Iraqi government is currently rushing to do so, but could be supported by the international community.

If we recognize the destruction of World Heritage sites as crimes against global culture, or global civilization, then they could perhaps be recognized as war crimes under international criminal law. Though it appears unlikely ISIS leaders would ever make it to ICC trial, charges of cultural genocide could certainly be laid down with other, more explicit, war crime indictments. With no reason to believe Iraqi and Syrian conflicts will slow, additional sales of cultural antiquities are inevitable. To Ronald Tiersky of Amherst College, this is sobering: “Such atrocities are an attack on collective identities, a kind of genocide in which we all are concerned because relics of human civilization are not the property of any one country or people. They are treasures of our collective past in the evolution of human civilization.” We ought try and protect them as such.