Islamic State: cultural cleansing, purity and modernity.

The destruction of ancient Mesopotamian artefacts, and the ruin of vast historical archives by IS is both shocking and seemingly irrational. International enemies of IS have unanimously greeted every act of defilement with disgust, be it the torching of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-zor, or the burning of thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul. IS’s propaganda videos celebrating the desecration and defacement of many original pieces from the Mosul museum have received wide international circulation. There has been numerous polemics attacking the barbarity of these actions, and commentators have abundantly drawn on the poignancy in the proliferation of vandalism from the cradle of human civilisation. Media coverage has further coagulated the opinion that such acts of cultural destruction are conceived through untamed fits of religious passion. Superficially, cultural cleansing by IS appears to be driven by religion, a primordial enforcement of celestial piety and a re-enactment of an imagined “pure” Islamic society that sharply defines right from wrong. Religiosity only explains the language IS operate through, and not the multiple materialist political foundations that are fundamental to the States survival and expanse.

Defining cultural cleansing and its objectives are crucial to understanding the political goals of IS. Most importantly, cultural cleansing is a political act, and has been used throughout history to enforce obedience, terror and hegemony. It can be characterised by four main points:

(1). Cultural cleansing has always been central to totalitarian ideology.

(2). It is usually justified through the inherently intolerant idea of “purity”.

(3). It aims to eradicate “impure” culture.

(4). It allows for the construction of a new narrative of the past that directly shapes the present.

Cultural cleansing and the annihilation of a nation’s past allow the arbiters of power to emancipate themselves from the shackles of history, to expunge the realisation that there have been, there are, and there will be alternative ways of living. The ruin of ancient Assyria in Khorsabad, or the destruction of Greco-Pathianism in Hatra, are both victims of IS’s aggressive policy of cultural cleansing. By destroying alternative narratives of the past, IS has freed itself to reinterpret, distort, dismantle and rebuild society in its own image.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the West must accept that IS is a modern force rather than a “barbaric” one, and that its ideology is a contemporary offshoot of mainstream Islam. By trying to govern through the prism of a binary and philistine interpretation of the Rashidun Caliphate, the modern Islamic State has emerged as a novel and very modern phenomenon – that of violent political Islamism.

The Islamist embrace of modernity can be traced back to al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was the first Jihadist leader to exploit the power of modern technology, professing an interest in ‘earth-moving machinery and genetic engineering of plants’, as well as promoting intercontinental communication networks and forums for violent Islamism. Four years since the death of bin Laden, his brutal ideological successors in Iraq and Syria have succeeded in diversifying their manipulation of technology. Social media has been a vital tool for IS’s propaganda war and recruitment of foreign fighters. The West’s perception of IS as backwards is a stark contrast to their implementation of modern technology.

The West must look beyond – without ignoring – the propagandistic visceral acts of execution and cultural vandalism, and resist the temptation of simplifying IS as principally barbaric. IS’s propaganda aims to present the organisation as swift and brutal, as a sword of justice in a corrupt world run by Americans and Jews.

Like IS, the anti-Islamic right believes in a “pure” form of Islam that is inherently violent. Like IS, they claim that the holy Islamic texts justify violence. Both IS and the anti-Islamic right hold “literal” interpretations of the Quran . Such claims are theological positions and partisan, they do not reveal the so-called “true” nature of Islam.

Contrary to the dogmatism of the puritans, the history of the Islamic world is dominated by progression and civilisation and not unrefined savagery and atavism. However, it would be equally ignorant, if not as dangerous, to claim that IS has nothing to do with Islam. The emergence of modern Salafism, a puritan form of Islamic theology, was born in the 19th century, a reaction to colonialism and an attempt to counter the spread of “European ideas” and preserve a “pure” form of Islamic theology.

An interview conducted by Hasnain Kazim from Der Spiegel with an IS recruiter named Abu Sattar revels the degree of separation between the mainstream of Islam and IS. Sattar is clear on IS’s ideological position. Kazim questions Sattar’s interpretation of Islam:

“In the golden age of Islam, there was music, dancing, painting, calligraphy and architecture. Yet you are propagating an Islam free of culture and art. It is time to discuss religious content and find a modern interpretation, don’t you think.”

Sattar responds by saying:

“It is not up to us to interpret God’s word. There have been repeated errors and lapses in Muslim societies. That which you refer to as the “golden age” was one of them.”

By Sattar’s own admission, “errors and lapses” are continuously “repeated” and are thus integral parts of the complex historical tapestry of Islam. These “errors and lapses” are better understood as trends and interpretations of the Quran and Islamic holy texts that precede Salafism and in many cases oppose its fundamental principles. For any religion, trends of interpretation are integral to connecting the changing nature of the material world to the essence of dogmatic religious principles. No living religion has been able to survive without adopting processes of interpretation.

Now, imagine that an anti-Islamic westerner were asked the same question and responded with the second half of Sattar’s answer:

“There have been repeated errors and lapses in Muslim societies. That which you refer to as the “golden age” was one of them.”

It would be of little surprise to hear such a response. Such sentiment from the anti-Islamic right is paramount to the crude – and often bigoted – misjudgement that IS is Islam in its “purest” form. To accept this simplification is to reject the great human achievements of Islam, the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate, the poetry of Hafiz and the Sufi master Rumi, the cultured courts of Baghdad and Al-andalus, of Cordoba and Granada, to conclude that these were all mere irregularities in the expanse of Islamic history. The generalist that claims Islam has remained stagnant in primitive violence may only explain the rich scientific heritage of Islam through similar explanations. That Khayyam and Averroes were merely hiccups and mutations from unalterable stagnation of Islam and divorced entirely from their socio-historical environment. This narrative renders the common trends and manifestations of Islamic history as divergent, cancerous and apostolic.

Cultural cleansing by IS has had a twofold victory. It has succeeded in destroying the cultural symbols of divergent societies – be it Nimrud or the Saad bin Aqeel Husseinya Shia shrine – and has superficially confirmed the prejudices of the anti-Islamic right in the West by playing on visceral emotion and rendering the political objectives opaque. This mystification of motivation, of viewing IS purely as a puritan religious force separate from the political and materialist dimension, must not be allowed to condense further, for this narrative undermines the true nature and objectives of IS.

Artefacts sledgehammered in Ninevah Museum Mosul.
Islamic State: cultural cleansing, purity and modernity.