Caught in the Middle: Cultural Preservation with ISIS and its Opposition


Amidst the recent ongoing conflict in Syria, parts of the famous Palmyra archaeological complex has been damaged by terrorist organization, ISIS. Deemed by ISIS as “pagan and idolatrous”, prominent historical landmarks namely the Temple of Baal Shamin, a temple dedicated towards a Phoenician god, were obliterated with the use of explosives. In addition, these were filmed and released in mass media through the organization’s personal social media outlets.

The physical damage caused by ISIS can obviously be quantified deeming their actions to be anti-cultural; however, the fact that the government has done so little to restore these culturally important sites, demonstrates the cultural drive of ISIS and the fractious nature of the anti-ISIS opposition.

We might deem the actions of ISIS as heinous, however “cultural cleansing” have existed long before ISIS. For instance,  the Khmer Rouge with their term for “year zero”. The goals of the Khmer Rouge and their “year zero” program were to develop a new agrarian society where there was “no space for cultural expression beyond propaganda for the regime” – whereby a whole generation of intellectuals, artists, teachers and other individuals, representative of the past, were purged. ISIS’s policy of cultural repression has in fact been compared to this similar idea of creating a “new culture”.

Although ISIS base their actions in terms of cultural expression on the basis of religion; with events such as the looting of the Mosul Museum on the basis of it being “idolatry against Prophet Muhammad”, they are implementing “Damnation Memoria” – the removal of cultural memory of the region that does not complement their own. Such cleansing can also be witnessed in their treatment of the Yazidi minority, where young children had been spared in order to re-educate them.

Unquestionably, human lives are worth more than cultural sites that ISIS has put at risk. However, this does not in any way lessen the importance of education and cultural preservation of a society. Although you can eventually acquire back territories and resources, it is difficult to re-establish the culture of a society.

In the context of the current ISIS conflict, groups and governments have fueled their defenses with equally religiously or politically based propaganda such as the Shia vs. Shiite. This has promoted further resentment between the groups.

In an article Jack Goldstone warned that revolution and conflict can often leave a loose coalition of groups with masked motives. As the coalition fighting against ISIS remains fractious in nature with different groups fighting in a complex network of interconnected alliances, the effectiveness against such a united ISIS front as well as the possibility for a stable long-term future wavers in the midst of such confusion. Although the establishment of unity within this opposition web is difficult to attain, a key starting point could be the preservation of such historical and cultural sites, which offer themselves as rallying points for the people of these different nations and groups in developing a greater national/regional identity with the possibility for even greater extension into other sources of cooperation and commonality.

As the current conflict with ISIS rages on in the Middle East, the loss of such cultural sites highlights the critical vacuum of a common cultural heritage that permeates through the conflict region. This cultural vacuum highlights the major cultural discrepancy between ISIS and its opposition as well as the growing cost towards the long term stability of the region.