As ISIS Destroys Ancient Pre-Islamic Artifacts, Academic Apologist Blames the West for its Desecration of History

Elliott Colla, associate professor of Arabic studies at Georgetown University, has joined the herd of Middle East studies professors who insist that Islam has nothing to do with widespread destruction of antiquities by the Islamic State (ISIS). Rather than appealing to Islamic texts or traditions to defend Islam, however, Colla deploys a two-fold strategy of feigning ignorance about ISIS and contextualizing their horrific acts within the intellectual and material legacy of Western colonial archaeology. As a result, in whitewashing Islamism Colla degrades the worth of ancient civilizations and their artifacts while training his moral outrage on Western colonialism, particularly the archaeological digs it sponsored and the museums these enterprises filled.

Regarding his argument from ignorance, writing at his blog on March 5, Colla claims:

What ISIS is doing [sic] the museums and antiquities sites under its control has yet to be verified, much less explained on a local basis. When we know enough about ISIS, we will be in a position to better understand the specific rationale behind their disturbing attacks, but for now, we really do not know very much. 

Later in the essay Colla returns to this theme and grudgingly acknowledges the similarities between ISIS and the Sunni iconoclasts of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia:

[B]ecause there seems to be a doctrinal element to ISIS's practices, it does seem right to think of it as iconoclasm rather than vandalism. The austere Sunni ideology of ISIS (like that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) is one that thinks of itself as iconoclastic in the most basic sense of the word.

As does anyone familiar with the subject. Near Eastern archaeologist Alexander Joffe has noted, “the Islamic State made it perfectly clear its motivations derived from Islam.” MEMRI’s translation of an ISIS spokesman’s comments as he stands in front of ISIS members smashing ancient Assyrian statues at the Mosul Museum should remove the doubt of even a see-no-evil professor of Middle East studies:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. . . . Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.

By ignoring such clear evidence, Colla is at pains to explain why the Western view of museum artifacts as universally important -- as sacred to everyone, albeit in a secular sense -- is so foreign to those who have been “excluded” not only from Western sensibilities about the past, but the museums themselves. At issue, he implies, are not irreplaceable objects from antiquity, but Western colonialism’s redefinition of the histories of the very people whose past Westerners literally recovered from the dusts of time. Rather than assigning or accepting what he regards as the Western or Westernized value of such objects, Colla insists we view them through the eyes of poorly educated locals upon whom Western elites foisted their foreign ideas -- just as Colla is doing now:

For most of the modern period most of the world's largest museums have been off limits to most people. While institutions like the British Museum relied on state subsidies, they excluded the vast majority of British citizens by way of dress codes, entrance fees or by simply limiting their opening hours to times when most people had to be at jobs…. [T]he Egyptian Museum in Cairo may be located in the bustling heart of Cairo, but it has always catered mainly to the tastes, needs and narratives of European, not Egyptian, visitors….  Could ordinary Egyptians be blamed when, in their struggle to live, they failed to venerate the objects which colonial overlords put on pedestals in halls that were off-limits to them?

Colla transfers these assumed beliefs from “ordinary Egyptians” to ISIS’s operations throughout the region to explain their actions, targeting as they do not simply pre-Islamic pagan artifacts, but the very concept of valuing the past itself:

Nor are they [ISIS] entirely wrong to cry “religion” when they hear absolutist claims about transcendent value, even those made by secularists and self-professed atheists. 

That uneducated people may view museums and their contents with apathy or even disdain is hardly news. Nor are acts of vandalism against the remains of earlier civilizations. Roman ruins were pilfered for their materials for centuries -- one thinks of the Coliseum’s missing façade. But “ordinary Egyptians,” along with “ordinary” Iraqis, Syrians, and others, aren’t given to storming museums, or the pyramids, or Nimrud, or myriad other antiquities armed with sledge hammers and bulldozers seeking to destroy objects supposedly graced with transcendent value by “colonial overlords” or Westernized rulers.

Colla’s convoluted worldview reaches its apogee of the absurd, if not the obscene, in his conclusion, where he equates the wanton destruction of antiquities in the name of Islam (not against any “absolutist claims” by Western and Westernized elites) with the toppling of the year-old statue of Saddam Hussein by U.S. Marines -- whom he labels “U.S. militants” -- in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. He writes:

Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS's ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren't we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn't we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies? Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some? 

With unintended irony, Colla applies to a new Stalinist-style statue of a tyrant who “modeled himself” on the bloody Soviet dictator the same “transcendent value” accorded antiquities by the colonials he condemns. Weren’t such propagandistic works “put on pedestals” (literally in this case) and, in a perverse reversal of being “off-limits to the populace,” made the objects of their forced adulation? Applying his concepts to the West, from which they are derived, did the long-suffering citizens of communist nations commit iconoclasm when they took their revenge on their tormentors in the only way most of them could, by toppling statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other glorious heroes of the Revolution? Should the totalitarian regime of North Korea fall, will Colla condemn its starving masses for “toppling the sacred objects of [their] enemies” if they pull down and destroy the monuments to a dynasty of evil men?

Colla writes that, “If iconoclasm is a sign of barbarism, and if the appreciation of artifacts is a sign of civilization, we would do well to get our own story straight.”

Try this: ancient artifacts from any culture are the invaluable patrimony of mankind, while the schlock propaganda of modern dictators -- and those who don’t know the difference -- deserve our unreserved contempt.

Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs and director, Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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