Why ISIS Is Destroying Iraq's Ancient Heritage

Visitors look at human-headed winged bull statues from ancient Assyria at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad on March 8, 2015. Iraq has urged a U.S.-led military coalition to use air power to protect the country's antiquities from ISIS fighters looting and destroying some of the world's greatest archaeological treasures. Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters

Once again the world's focus is drawn by the ability of the Islamic State (ISIS) to inspire shock and revulsion, even amid a new assault to try to retake the Iraqi territory that it has governed for the past eight months. This time, however, it is not massacres, brutal murders or mass kidnappings that have drawn attention, but wanton destruction of Iraq's pre-Islamic patrimony.

Reports that ISIS bulldozers have started razing the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in the 13th century B.C., have created headlines around the world. Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, described the group's actions as a war crime. This follows the release of a video showing ISIS militants pulverizing ancient artifacts in a Mosul museum.

In the Mosul video, the Gulf-accented narrator gives a clear reason for the group's actions. "The remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah.... The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own hands, when he conquered Mecca.... This is what his companions did later when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols and remains, it is easy for us to obey."

This reasoning is central to why actions like this are not surprising. They go to the heart of the Salafi project: to return Islam to the perception of its condition at the time of Muhammad and his companions and overturn the bid'a (innovation) that has corrupted the religion since. It is now commonplace to say that ISIS is simply a death cult. But this is to ignore the central role that justifications like these play in the group's actions—and it ignores that ideological milieu from which ISIS and its fellow travelers are drawn.

This Salafi current is driven by a fervent desire to eliminate shirk: the association of others with God. This is mirrored by a desire to restore pure tawhid, belief in the oneness of God. Within the majority of those in the Salafi movement, it is manifested by the fastidious imitation of the practices of the Prophet and his companions as much as possible (from style of facial hair to methods of brushing one's teeth) and extensive proselytization, both outside Islam to bring people to the faith and within it to restore tawhid and destroy bid'a.

However, when this literalist current is translated to Salafi-jihadi movements its consequences are more dangerous. The genocide of the Yezidi was justified in terms of defeating shirk and restoring tawhid. Massacres of Shia, regarded by many Salafis as mushrikun (those who practice shirk) for their veneration of the family of the Prophet, is justified in terms of eliminating shirk and returning to tawhid. Persecutions (and killings) of Sunnis have been justified in the same way: The destruction of the shrine of the prophet Jonah in Mosul in July 2014 or the destruction of the shrine of Imam Nawawi in Syria in January 2015 were justified on the grounds that they encouraged shirk.

Nor is such action limited to the Syrian and Iraqi theaters. When jihadi rebels took Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, they destroyed mosques and shrines. When Islamic sites are destroyed so readily by Salafi-jihadi groups on the grounds that they encourage shirk, pre-Islamic heritage is especially vulnerable, which was evident when the Taliban blew up Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

But the references of the vandals in Mosul to the actions of the Prophet and his companions are notable in how disingenuous it is. While it is true that Muhammad ordered the destruction of the pagan idols in the Ka'aba (the focal point of Muslim prayer, in Mecca), the mere existence of such an extensive pre-Islamic heritage across most of the Muslim world reveals the lie that ISIS is emulating the practice of his companions when it conquered other lands, from Egypt to Syria and across the Islamic world.

Perhaps sensing the difficulty, the video of the destruction in the Mosul museum ends with a clarificatory footnote: "These idols and statues were not visible in the days of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but were extracted by the worshippers of the devils."

When we focus on individual actions of groups like ISIS, however brutal or destructive, they inevitably appall. But to treat the group as a psychopathic aberration, acting irrationally and devoted only to destruction, is to miss the logic that underpins their actions.

There is a clear narrative of violent literalism in their understanding of scripture, which runs through all of their actions: Their brutality is not random or irrational but designed to achieve something. Until we understand this, we may defeat ISIS, but we won't defeat the undercurrent from which it springs.

Peter Welby is editorial manager at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. This article first appeared on religionandgeopolitics.org.