When statues mean more than people

Fabricated versions of reality also constitute historical vandalism.

A Christian militiaman stands near the broken body of a statue of Christ in the 13th century St. Jacob''s Church near the frontline with ISIL fighters in Telskuf, northern Iraq [Getty]
A Christian militiaman stands near the broken body of a statue of Christ in a 13th-century church in northern Iraq [Getty]

Recently on my Facebook news feed, a post materialised from an American research scientist at New York University whose CV includes work on a “joint peace-building project” between that institution and the University of Duhok in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The post featured two photographs of ancient ruins in Duhok that had been on the receiving end of graffiti in the form of Kurdish flags, which the research scientist had used to equate the graffiti artists with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) – known, among other things, for its destruction of antiquities and archaeological sites.

“Dear Kurdish nationalists that did this,” he wrote, “you’re no better than [ISIL] and you’re spineless cowards who, if you had an ounce of courage, would be on the frontlines and not vandalising priceless history.”

Iraqi archaeologist discusses ISIL’s destruction of antiquities

Never mind that it’s not up to Western visitors to dictate to long-exploited populations how precisely to manifest personal or collective aspirations, or that comparing flag painters to decapitation-happy jihadists is a bit extreme.

It bears adding that this particular fellow is himself a veteran of the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan, two locations where the US has engaged in its fair share of vandalism – not to mention widespread slaughter. Apparently, human beings just aren’t that “priceless”.

Ruinous behaviour

The purpose of highlighting this Facebook post, obviously, is not to suggest that the research scientist is somehow unique in his selective condemnation of destruction, but rather that such selectivity is in fact the norm in the West.

READ MORE: The antiquities looting crisis in the Middle East

While observers have been up in arms over ISIL’s wrecking of historical sites, the same level of outrage and disgust has never been on display when the US and its buddies do things such as blast the cradle of civilisation with radioactive as well as more conventional weaponry.

While observers have been up in arms over ISIL's wrecking of historical sites, the same level of outrage and disgust has never been on display when the US and its buddies do things such as blast the cradle of civilisation with radioactive as well as more conventional weaponry.


Needless to say, such behaviour has proved ruinous not only for monuments and structures but also for living things.

Among the inanimate casualties of the 2003 war on Iraq were the National Library and National Museum in Baghdad, decimated by fire and looting, respectively. Centuries-old documents and ancient artefacts were lost.

On the reportedly “impassive” reaction of US soldiers to the looting, Meghan O’Rourke remarked in the online magazine Slate that the “military’s inaction doesn’t seem to have been a question of choosing between protecting civilians and guarding gold jewellery”.

Continuing, she cited a Chicago Tribune “report  that the US military successfully assigned men to chip away a disrespectful mural of former President George Bush on the floor of [Baghdad’s] Al Rashid Hotel, even though it failed to protect the museum and library from being plundered”.

Of course, if we want to talk about “disrespectful” works of art, the US invasion was a bloody masterpiece.

Meanwhile, a passage from award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra’s book Temptations of the West explores other realms of Western hypocrisy. Mishra describes the reaction of his Afghan fixer Ishrat to the Taliban’s dynamiting of giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in March 2001:

“Why do Western people care so much about old Buddhist statues no one worships? Why are they not writing front-page articles about millions of starving and dying people in Afghanistan? They want to give money for the statues and take them to their museums, but what about human beings?”

Other kinds of vandalism

Although acknowledging that he himself was “appalled” by the news of the statues’ defacement, Mishra explains that he gradually grew “somewhat weary of the outrage and scorn… In the angry editorials in London, the Taliban once again appeared as particularly vicious barbarians from the Middle Ages instead of the bastard children they increasingly seemed to me of the West’s arrogant meddling in Afghanistan in very recent times”.

The facade of St George's Church stands damaged from war in Telskuf, near the frontline with ISIL in northern Iraq [Getty]
The facade of St George’s Church stands damaged from war in Telskuf, near the frontline with ISIL in northern Iraq [Getty]

Later that same year, opportunities for enhanced meddling arose with the invasion of Afghanistan, where the US military has continued to leave its cultural mark on the landscape via operations ranging from air strikes on hospitals to urination on enemy corpses.

As for the whole “bastard child” phenomenon, it’s worth pointing out that, as in the case of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the US and its allies have contributed to a not insignificant degree to the formation and rise of ISIL.

Indeed, the toxic nature of the so-called “war on terror” and the West’s targeted disregard for human life have helped spawn ever more formidable opponents – and ever greater financial security for the arms industry. In the meantime, the forcible sidelining of cause-and-effect analysis in favour of simplistic and counterfactual narratives starring the US in the role of global terror-fighting hero offers sustained justification for bellicose activity.

To be sure, the defacement of archaeological and cultural sites is a deplorable phenomenon that often entails not only superficial damage but also pernicious symbolic implications.

But those who selectively decry the vandalism of “priceless history” would do well to recognise that fabricated versions of reality themselves constitute historical vandalism.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.