Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Exploitation of Art as a Weapon of War and a Means of Cultural Eradication

By Gail FletcherPublished March 13, 2015

Cultural artifacts are incredibly vulnerable to both unintentional and deliberate destruction during times of war. As seen by the videos and images released by ISIS, Iraqi artifacts are not immune to the norm. Effective measures must be taken to end the destruction and illegal trade of antiquities before it is too late.
By Gail Fletcher, 03/13/15

A video was recently released by ISIS depicting the destruction of artifacts from the Akkadian and Assyrian empires in the Mosul Museum. As the art toppled, it dragged down with it the cultural heritage that it represented. The video resonated deeply with the art community and, in general, those who understand the significance of the antiquities and the gravity of their destruction. Although understandably overshadowed by the media coverage on the Islamic State's extreme human rights violations, these relics of the past still should not be forgotten.

Interestingly, there has been contestation within the archeological community as to whether the artifacts depicted in the video were in fact authentic or if they were plaster replicas. Despite the uncertainty, the destruction raises important questions: why does ISIS seek to destroy ancient artifacts and, more importantly, what has been done to stop it?

ISIS is said to be destroying ancient artwork, due to their refusal to recognize idols that were worshiped instead of Allah and state that they were commanded by him to destroy the artifacts. The group is thus on a quest towards the complete eradication of a cultural heritage.

But the Islamic state does not seek to destroy all of the seemingly invaluable antiquities found in the regions that they occupy and this lack of uniformity in their endeavors is something Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claims to be" a great hypocrisy". ISIS, in reality, sells much of the ancient artifacts to the black market and utilizes the revenue to support their recruitment efforts and their overall military agenda. This practice is not perpetrated solely by the militants as many other countries in the region follow similar methods of amassing funds. The income garnered from the sales is said to perpetuate corruption and extremism in the region.

In an effort to crush the illegal sale of antiquities and the subsequent empowerment of militant groups, the U.N recently issued a resolution to prohibit trade of cultural artifacts. The resolution iterates that countries that do not comply with the stipulations face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions. Although the issuing highlights that the illegal trade of artifacts is being addressed, the prohibition cannot ensure that flow of revenue to ISIL is severed and it does nothing to prevent the destruction of cultural property. The UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, stated that there is not much the U.N could do to prevent the destruction of the art as it has no way of enforcing their declaration. But, the United Nations resolution cannot be the only answer.

Unsurprisingly, the incident in the Mosul Museum was not the first instance of intentional art destruction. Similarities can be drawn between the Taliban's attack on the revered Buddhas of Baiyman in 2001, the destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu at the hands of Ansar Dine, and the looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003.  It is a pattern that is easily recognizable and something must be done to break it.

There appeared to be some measures that were taken by the Mosul Museum to relocate the artifacts to safer areas. The actions undertaken by the museum to protect its' art mirror those that European countries took to guard some of their most prized assets during the ascent of Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, the failure to protect the museum from the infiltration of ISIS highlights that more still must be done. The international community should consider aiding in the protection of museums and cultural heritage sites, and if need be, the transportation of artifacts to defined areas in which they can be protected. When both the looting and destruction of valuable art is curbed, key sources of support that ISIS relies upon will be eliminated thus weakening the state of the militants. A cultural heritage, subsequently, will be salvaged.

Seeing that the video was released months after the militants occupied the Mosul Museum, how much art has since been destroyed remains uncertain. What is clear, however, is that we are running out of time.