Last Wednesday the Islamic State released a video showing members of the extremist rebel group smashing with sledgehammers ancient stone monuments, carvings and other art in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Most of the art destroyed dated back to the 9th-7th centuries B.C. and was collected by archaeologists from the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a once-thriving Mesopotamian city on the eastern banks of the Tigris River directly across from Mosul.
At one point in the video, men are shown casting to the ground and pulverizing a set of large winged bulls that once were placed at the city gates for protection from invading parties bent on war and usurpation of power. Today, the self-proclaimed worldwide caliphate occupies Mosul, the largest city under IS control.
IS has become well known for posting on social media videos of journalists, relief workers and other innocent people being beheaded to spread its hold beyond its epicenter in Iraq, Syria and Libya. And though the loss of life will always be put before the loss of art, Eleanor Robson, a professor from University College London, called the most recent video the “cultural equivalent” to the beheadings.
Her point is a good one. Just as the beheadings are used to spread IS’s warped Sunni Islamist perspective and sharia law, this video from Mosul too is meant to evoke fear and bring with it the threat of oppression to viewers.
The destruction of art was used in a similar way to aid the Nazi’s in their pervasive ethnic and ideological cleansing, and the historical correlative serves as an outline that IS members are clearly following with dominative intentions.
The collective goal of groups like the Nazis and IS to seize power and suppress ideas at variance with their own by force is extremism defined in the flesh. Christians, Shia Muslims, Yazidis and scores of other groups of people are being sought out by IS and tortured or often murdered in mass attacks.
This parallels the Nazi’s Final Solution to systematically exterminate Jews and other ethnoreligious groups. And in both instances art was a focal point that leaders wanted to hold sway over. The influence of art is never ignored by those who want to rule, and this is why propaganda is so important to counteract the effect great art has on people.
The Third Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda not only was responsible for slandering and creating animosity toward those not in keeping with Hitler’s “pure race,” but it also strived to eradicate from existence Modernist art like Braque’s and Picasso’s cubism, favoring instead classical German art that posed no threat to the establishment.
This is why IS pours funds into the “films” it produces of beheadings and the destruction of art, bringing to ruination both countless lives and the transcendent art those lives created and meant to leave behind.
It isn’t enough for IS, like the Nazi’s, to kill swaths of people based on ethnic and religious views, but it believes it also has a duty to suppress the local cultural expression of each area it occupies.
Nazi history offers a template to show what the increased effects brought about by thinking of this nature can do. The malevolent capabilities of armed and influenced militants are endless. And until the number of violent extremist groups wanes and stops multiplying at accelerating rates, the sacredness of both life and art will continue to be profaned.