When the Islamic State (IS) seized large swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq and declared their new caliphate, they unleashed a cataclysmic wave of both devastating human suffering and unprecedented heritage destruction. In terms of human suffering, the IS forced thousands to flee their traditional homelands in fear for their lives; young women were forced into marriages or traded as sex slaves; boys as young as 12 were used as child soldiers; and the region’s many cultural and religious groups faced cruel and deadly persecution, including being slaughtered and dumped into mass graves. Not surprisingly, such actions have been recognized as a genocide by several key states and multilateral bodies. As then US Secretary of State John Kerry put it, the IS are “genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions.”1John Kerry, Remarks on Daesh and Genocide, US Department of State, March 17, 2016.
Paralleling their genocidal pogroms, the IS also undertook a systematic iconoclastic campaign across the territories they controlled. Aside from their globally publicized attacks on the Mosul Museum and UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Hatra and Palmyra, the IS actively targeted the sacred sites of various communities: Shia shrines, Christian churches, and Yezidi temples were systematically desecrated and destroyed.“…very few studies have sought to document how Syrians or Iraqis who witnessed the destruction of their heritage sites and were forcibly displaced have perceived the destruction of their heritage, its links to trauma and genocide, the complex ways in which it shaped their displacement and attitudes toward return, and the role they perceive for heritage reconstruction in developing (post)conflict stability and peace.”
In response, a number of scholarly works have sought to document, analyze, and interpret both the human tragedy and the heritage destruction that has unfolded under the IS and the failure of states and multilateral institutions to respond effectively.2A few key examples include Neil Brodie, “Syria and its Regional Neighbours: A Case of Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure?” International Journal of Cultural Property 22, no. 2–3 (2015): 317–335; Salam Al Quntar and Brian Daniels, “Responses to the Destruction of Syrian Cultural Heritage: A Critical Review of Current Efforts,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 5, no. 2 (2016): 381–397; Emma Cunliffe, Nibal Muhesen, and Marina Lostal, “The Destruction of Cultural Property in the Syrian Conflict: Legal Implications and Obligations,” International Journal of Cultural Property 23, no. 1 (2016): 1–31. Among such studies, several have examined the complex set of motives that have driven the heritage destruction of the IS, including their selective reinterpretation of Islamist doctrine to justify the iconoclasm, their desire to garner global media attention via spectacular attacks on globally recognized heritage sites, and to intimidate religious minorities toward the creation of a homogenous “Islamic State.”3A few key examples include Benjamin Isakhan and José Antonio González Zarandona, “Layers of Religious and Political Iconoclasm under the Islamic State: Symbolic Sectarianism and Pre-Monotheistic Iconoclasm,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 24, no. 1 (2018): 1–16; Miroslav Melčák and Ondrej Beránek, “ISIS’s Destruction of Mosul’s Historical Monuments: Between Media Spectacle and Religious Doctrine,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 6, no. 2 (2017): 389–415; Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyrian to the Internet (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020); Oumar Ba, “Governing the Souls and Community: Why Do Islamists Destroy World Heritage Sites?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, June 30, 2020; Kristy Campion, “Blast through the Past: Terrorist Attacks on Art and Antiquities as a Reconquest of the Modern Jihadi Identity,” Perspectives on Terrorism 11, no. 1 (2017): 26–39. What is curiously absent from the extant literature, however, is that very few studies have sought to document how Syrians or Iraqis who witnessed the destruction of their heritage sites and were forcibly displaced have perceived the destruction of their heritage, its links to trauma and genocide, the complex ways in which it shaped their displacement and attitudes toward return, and the role they perceive for heritage reconstruction in developing (post)conflict stability and peace.4See, for example, Benjamin Isakhan and Lynn Meskell, “UNESCO’s Project to ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’: Iraqi and Syrian Opinion on Heritage Reconstruction after the Islamic State,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 25, no. 11 (2019): 1189–1204; Benjamin Isakhan and Sofya Shahab, “The Islamic State’s Destruction of Yezidi Heritage: Responses, Resilience and Reconstruction after Genocide,” Journal of Social Archaeology 20, no. 1 (2020): 3–25. To address this lacuna, my colleagues and I have undertaken numerous in-depth semistructured interviews with Iraqis and Syrians from various areas and ethnic and religious backgrounds, many of whom were eyewitnesses to heritage destruction and were forcibly displaced by the IS.5This essay draws on 53 in-depth semistructured interviews with Syrians and Iraqis that were specifically designed to examine issues of heritage, its destruction and reconstruction, in the context of the ongoing conflicts. They were conducted both in-person and via phone/Skype between March 2017 and October 2019. These interviews were collected in accordance with the ethical standards of the Deakin University Human Research Ethics Committee, Australia. Informed consent was obtained for all participants, who remain anonymous and nonidentifiable. It is important to note that the responses given by these interviewees are not considered to be representative of broader Syrian or Iraqi opinion but are instead designed to yield an array of qualitative insights into each individual’s views on heritage destruction and reconstruction in conflict. Such empirical research has important implications for ongoing heritage reconstruction projects across the region such as those championed by UNESCO and other actors. Being cognizant of local opinion on heritage—its destruction and reconstruction—is critical if such projects are to achieve their goals of using heritage to foster a more peaceful and tolerant future. The remainder of this short essay documents a few key responses from these interviews along the following three key themes.
Trauma, genocide, and belonging
Having endured the horrors unleashed by the IS across Syria and Iraq, it is not surprising that several respondents commented on their sense of loss and trauma at the destruction of heritage sites. As just one example, a Sunni Arab woman from Mosul described her deeply emotional response after watching the destruction of the Nebi Yunus (Prophet Jonah) mosque on television and then subsequently visiting the site after it had been destroyed. “My reaction was like trauma. When I heard of this destruction, it was like trauma for me… Every time I am going and seeing this destroyed mosque, I feel like something has been destroyed in my life or inside me.”6IN025. Interview with Sunni Arab woman from Mosul, Iraq, now living in Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan) but working in Mosul, May 2018.
For many others, the trauma of witnessing the destruction of their heritage was viewed as a deliberate strategy by the IS and an integral component of the broader genocidal campaign against the myriad peoples of Syria and Iraq. One Assyrian Christian man from Mosul provided an example of the link between the destruction of heritage and the persecution of people. He stated:
It is a genocide because genocide is not only killing you, but a genocide is also by removing your identity. So, when your foundation is removed, it is a genocide too. They didn’t have the chance to kill you, so they removed your culture, they removed your identity, they removed your churches.7IN019. Interview with Assyrian Christian man from Mosul, Iraq, now living in Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan), December 2017.
Key to understanding the extent to which the destruction of heritage sites was experienced as part of the broader genocide is the important role that these sites played in providing a sense of identity and belonging. For many respondents, these were much more than mere historical or religious sites, they were also significant hubs for social gatherings, communal solidarity, and cultural practice. By targeting these heritage sites, the IS were therefore able to rupture the fundamental role that such places played in communal identity and sense of belonging. This was elaborated on by another respondent:
When there are targeted attacks [on churches] they are trying to destroy, to take from people, the sense of belonging. Because when you go to church, you belong to that church; when you destroy that church, you are destroying the relationship between you and that church and the sense of belonging.8IN016. Interview with Armenian Christian man from Aleppo, Syria, now living in Sydney, Australia, November 2017.
Displacement and return
Beyond how the destruction of heritage across Syria and Iraq was experienced as part of a broader genocide and as a fundamental rupture to belonging and memory, several interviewees argued that the destruction of heritage had been a key catalyst in their decision to leave. They felt there was nothing left to keep them in the region. Putting it succinctly, one interlocutor stated: “When people saw that churches were being destroyed, schools were being destroyed, they said ‘yes, it’s time to move out’.”9IN016.
For others, the destruction of heritage sites had not only been a key motive to flee Syria or Iraq but was also one reason why they might never return. As one Assyrian woman from Dohuk explained:
When I saw they damaged everything, I cannot describe. We should not say it, but we are feeling that whatever happens to Mosul we do not care anymore because they destroyed everything there. Why is it necessary for people to return back to Mosul? You can build again houses, you can build again schools, you can make people go back, but what can we do without these [heritage] places?10IN022. Interview with Assyrian Christian woman from Dohuk, Iraq, now living in Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan), May 2018.
Reconstruction and reconciliation
While heritage destruction had motivated some respondents to flee their ancestral homelands and led others to decide never to return, it had also led some to consider the role the reconstruction of heritage sites may come to play in fostering intercommunal dialogue and (post)conflict reconciliation. However, some pointed out that it would do little good to rebuild sites if there were no people left to utilize them. For example, one interlocutor reflected on having witnessed the reconstruction of several churches in Homs despite the absence of a significant Christian community. As he recounted it:
Most of the churches [in Homs] have now managed to be rehabilitated or restored. But if you go nearby you will see that they demolished completely entire neighborhoods and buildings. Therefore, the Christians cannot go back. So now we have restored the buildings but we do not have the living stones [the community]… What good are old stones [heritage sites], if you do not have living stones? What does it mean to have heritage, but nobody passes by those heritage?… What does it mean now to pass by ruins where you don’t have human beings? If you lose the human beings, nothing remains in my opinion.11IN012. Interview with Greek Orthodox man from Aleppo, Syria, now living in Beirut, Lebanon, October 2017.
Despite such concerns, many respondents felt strongly that key heritage sites ought to be rebuilt. As one Sunni Arab man from Mosul noted: “The main demand of the masses is the restoration and rehabilitation of the religious places, mosques and churches, which were attacked.”12IN008. Interview with Sunni Arab man from Zummar, Iraq, now living in Mosul, Iraq, July 2017. However, several respondents made it very clear that it ought to be Syrians or Iraqis who are ultimately responsible for the reconstruction of their heritage sites. One respondent, a Sunni Arab man from Homs, put it succinctly: “We don’t want others to just come and rebuild it all for us. We destroyed it so we should rebuild it together.”13IN037. Interview with Sunni Arab man from Homs, Syria, now living in Zaatari, Jordan, October 2018. Many thought that the very process of Syrians and Iraqis rebuilding their heritage together could help to re-establish intercommunity solidarity and herald a move toward a more peaceful future. In this way, the reconstruction of heritage sites was seen as playing a key role in fostering communal dialogue, promoting peace, and rebuilding trust between communities.14See Isakhan and Shahab, “The Islamic State’s Destruction of Yezidi Heritage.” One Greek Orthodox man from Aleppo argued that:
rebuilding heritage should not be by one sector [ethnic or religious group], it should be by the whole Syrian people, because it will contribute to bring people together again, as it…[has contributed] in the past, to bring people and to bring different nations together. To come and to contribute to intercultural relationships and connections.15IN012.
Other respondents went a step further, explaining that they had already returned to their hometowns and joined together with their local community to rebuild heritage sites on their own terms. As one Yezidi woman put it: “We in Bashiqa returned after its liberation and we did not rely on the government, we cleaned it by ourselves and brought electricity and water… But what kept us calm is that we returned and rebuilt our shrines again.”16IN030. Interview with Yezidi woman from Bashiqa, Iraq, now living in Bashiqa, Iraq, September 2018. Another interviewee related an example of intercommunal cooperation, where Yezidis and Christians worked together to restore a ruined church:
We start[ed] cleaning the church together to say the church also will stand in the town. And…we made a festival in the church where Yezidis and Christians [came together]… We [performed] ceremonies to open the church again by ringing the bell and making a mass in there.17IN027. Interview with Yezidi man from Bashiqa, Iraq, now living in Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan), June 2018.
The advance of the IS across large swathes of Syria and Iraq from 2013 was a critical moment for the myriad peoples of the region. The IS not only enacted horrific genocidal violence against several communities, they also undertook an aggressive iconoclastic program in which they targeted key religious and historical sites. This essay has sought to understand how the people of Syria and Iraq may have experienced and understood the intersection between heritage destruction and their persecution, documenting the results of interviews with men and women from across the two countries. These interviews reveal that, for these respondents at least, the IS attacks on their heritage sites had three specific but interconnected consequences. First, many reported experiencing the heritage destruction done by the IS as a key component of the broader genocide, triggering profound feelings of trauma, which in turn ruptured their sense of belonging. Second, for many interlocutors, the destruction of heritage was a key catalyst in their decision to flee their homes, leading to physical and emotional displacement. For some, heritage destruction also diminished the prospect of returning to their traditional homelands, with several wondering why they would return if their most sacred heritage sites had been destroyed. Third, the respondents also held complex views on reconstruction and the role that it could play in postconflict reconciliation. Some wondered who would use reconstructed heritage sites given the mass exodus of minority communities, while others expressed clear preferences that any reconstruction should be led by local communities in the hope that it might foster intercommunal dialogue and a more peaceful future. In some instances, interviewees talked of successful efforts in which communities had already banded together to reconstruct key heritage sites, demonstrating remarkable resistance and resilience in the face of the violence perpetrated by the IS.
Acknowledging these nuanced and divergent attitudes on such issues is critical not only to understanding human and heritage suffering across Syria and Iraq under the IS, but also to the prospects of a more peaceful future. It also has implications beyond the case study of contemporary Syria and Iraq, advancing our understanding of the complex relationships between heritage destruction and genocide, displacement and reconciliation in conflict. Indeed, engaging with local opinion on heritage—even when these opinions are difficult, divergent, or derisive—is perhaps the only way that efforts to protect and restore heritage can have a meaningful long-term impact in complex (post)conflict contexts. Ongoing efforts to reconstruct heritage sites across Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, such as those led by UNESCO and others, can only really achieve their ultimate goal of using heritage to foster peace if they concede that working with locals is critical to building and maintaining a peaceful future.
Banner photo: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons.