UCR hosts discussion on ISIS and the consequences of cultural destruction

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, the UCR Global Issues Forum and Middle Eastern Student Center hosted an event titled, “ISIS and Cultural Destruction.” The event, which was held in HUB 302N and began at 4 p.m.,was moderated by Medieval Art History Professor Conrad Rudolph and featured three speakers and a roundtable discussion.

UCR Professor of History Michele Salzman began the forum by introducing the history of the ancient city of Palmyra — now known as present-day Homs Governorate, Syria — the region that is now a target of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). ISIS is one of the primary jihadist forces that is at war with Syrian and Iraqi governments. Salzman described the city, historically, as a “secular hub” and caravan city due to its geographical position being near the Euphrates River, as well as its central location that allowed for open travel from the east and west.

“This was a multi-ethnic city that flourished. And I think that’s one of the reasons why ISIS targeted it,” Salzman explained. Ancient sites such as the Temple of Bel have been destroyed by ISIS. Websites such as New Palmyra contain digital galleries of artwork in an effort to recreate the destructed cultural and historical sites.

Following Salzman’s introduction of the geographical region of Palmyra, Associate Professor of the Practice of Religion at USC Lynn Swartz Dodd, continued on by discussing the scale and scope of cultural heritage destruction. Aside from physically observing the looting and destruction from satellite photos, there are also “on-the-ground informants, who are willing organizations who are intentionally reaching out and seeking information about what is happening,” Dodd elucidated.

ISIS authorities sell permits to allow for people to dig and remove artifacts from ancient sites, to serve as one of their streams of income. In the future, Dodd believes that desire for ownership of these items will allow for this practice to continue. Dodd then went on to elaborate how destruction of cultural heritage intimately exists hand-in-hand with human suffering because “the destruction of all the places around which those who don’t share exactly the same shade of Islam.” Dodd closed her presentation by explaining how she believed “it’s not only ancient objects that are at stake, it’s our way of life that values human striving that’s at stake” and how we need to avoid purchasing antiquities from this region.

Lastly, Stephen James, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at UCR, explained why he believes that, from an anthropological perspective, these cultural sites are reprehensible for ISIS. James attributed many of today’s common laws that are abided by internationally to historic texts and described how behaviors not sanctioned by the community are considered strange. “It is the actions of the ‘other’ from ISIS’ perspective that’s in question, not our own … It’s important that we examine them in the behavior of the ‘other’ from their own perspective rather than immediately judging them from our own perspective.”

James attributed ISIS’ motivation to destroy ancient sites to establish a caliphate — an Islamic  governing body that rules politically and religiously over Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad — to the “notion of control.” He also went on to describe ISIS’ prospect to purify the land by taking territory, cleansing it and then controlling it. James ended by expressing his belief that a change in religious mindset from a land-based religion to a community-based religion would allow for multiple religions to coexist.

The event closed with a roundtable discussion, in which the panel speakers spent around eight minutes speaking more in-depth about cultural destruction and answering questions asked by members of the audience.

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