On Jan. 20, 2016 the destruction of the monastery of St. Elijah in Iraq was confirmed via satellite photographs published by The Associated Press and Iraqi officials and historians. St. Elijah, or Dair Mar Elia, a sacred structure to many that stood unharmed for 1,400 years was completely pulverized in late August or September 2014.
This was not the first ancient site that ISIS has damaged over the course of its campaign of terror. In fact, ISIS doesn’t just destroy sites, it funds its operations by looting both antiquities and marketable artifacts. Experts believe there are several reasons for them to target these specific sites. Michael Danti, professor of archaeology at Boston University, believes that one of those reasons is simply to incite anger.
“A lot of what [ISIS is] trying to do is stoke sectarian tensions and proliferate conflict,” said Danti. “Their primary target is what they refer to as the ‘near enemy,’ being anyone other than Salafist Sunni muslims. After that they target pre-Islamic heritage.”
Their calculated use of the Arabic language in the video of destruction that ISIS disclosed to the media is evidence of their desire to invoke negative and inflammatory feelings amongst the local population, heightening tensions and playing on their mistrust of the international population.
ISIS, however, claims this is a war on a region’s culture and heritage. It claims that this is a campaign to scourge the region of remnants of cultures it considers anathema to its own twisted version of Islam. It claims that our horror at the loss of these remnants is their goal. Their justification for undertaking this atrocious act of ruination was their interpretation of the sin of Shirk, or idolatry. They claim to “remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism” every time they feel the need to, which seems to be “whenever we [the ISIS jihadis] take control of a piece of land.”
However, the most concerning problem is the international outrage invoked by these deeds which seem to be playing right into ISIS propaganda. For example, the terrorist organization’s use of videos depicting the deliberate destruction of these sites was a master stroke that took over all media channels, hence burying the news of their defeat at Tirik.
We are playing into ISIS’ claim and agenda by expending all of our energy and resources on constantly covering their seemingly mindless rampage. This devastation is, without question, sickening. The attempt to eradicate a culture in this brutal, unchecked manner is terrifying, but the reality is that ISIS simply doesn’t care about these sites as much as we do, and it uses this to leverage it into near-invisibility. We don’t know what their future goals might be. Their current weaponry status, even their whereabouts aren’t entirely known. We’ve neglected to see beyond the smokescreen of rubble and ruin that they’ve left behind. That reality is far more terrifying.
We need to shift our own priorities to determine our news, and our media needs to stop inadvertently facilitating the ISIS agenda.
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Email Pragya Gianani at [email protected]