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Civilisation under threat

The destruction of Palmyra threatens the sense of a plurality of great civilisations

The slaughter of 129 innocents in Paris by the so-called Islamic State (IS) instils, by its casualness, fear into most of Europe. It is a new venture and one which is likely to be repeated perhaps until it affects all of our daily lives adversely.

But IS operates on many fronts.

Another comprehensivist IS policy covers culture. IS deplored Paris as the centre of licentiousness and adultery. But it also deplores any culture incompatible with stringent Sunni extremism. History has no value for IS. Idolatry must be obliterated.

In August 82-year old antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by IS and his head suspended from a pole in Palmyra in Syria, after he apparently refused to reveal under torture the whereabouts of artefacts IS wished to plunder. The act subverted heroism, culture, civilisation itself.

 

History has no value for IS. Idolatry must be obliterated

 

Since IS overran Palmyra in May, it has gradually been destroying the site using barrels of dynamite. The 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph, the Temple of Baalshamin and a large temple, dedicated to Bel, have been blown up. Palmyra was one of humanity’s great treasures. It may seem obtuse to draw attention to the destruction of architectural heritage considering the casualty and refugee tolls of the war but Palmyra reveals the proto-state and terror-supporting Islamic State (IS) as a totalitarian regime that eradicates reminders of competing narratives in Orwellian fashion.

Sadly, it is difficult to convey the serene and fragile grandeur of Palmyra in Syria. I visited it in 2004. Such was my solitude – even at that time there were few visitors to this remote outpost in Assad’s Syria – it felt like I had been given permission to wander around a vast outdoor museum after closing time. What remained were a series of structures conforming to neo-Platonic ideals of orderly beauty, integrating stone that blended with the shades of the desert for an effect that revealed the highest expression of human achievement.

It was an oasis of affecting scale and flickering artistry that civilised a harsh environment whose form has withstood a steady stream of Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and Europeans conquerors.

Deriving wealth from a strategic location along the spice route that for millennia channelled Asian riches into Europe, it is a wrenching reminder of how civilisations decline but, conversely, endure to inspire future ages. This ancient city challenged Rome itself under the rule of queen Zenobia. Khaled al-Assad in all his pride named one of his daughters after that formidable matriarch.

 

Palmyra is a reminder of how civilisations decline but, conversely, endure to inspire future ages

 

Palmyra conjures a plurality of narratives. For example early Islamic scholars greatly esteemed Greek philosophy. Indeed much of our Classical heritage was brought to Christian attention through contact with the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages. Such nuance is ignorantly rejected by IS as well as by those commentators in the West who promote the false idea of a timeless clash of civilisations.

Considering the expunction of other sites in Syria there is a strong chance that what remains of Palmyra will be destroyed like other sacred monuments in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in the name of obscure branches of Islam.

IS ideology can be seen as offshoot of Wahhabism – a violent interpretation of Islam articulated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) whose ideas were adopted by the Al-Saud clan in the eighteenth century, helping them become the dominant force in Arabia until they were finally defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The resurgence of the Al-Sauds in the early twentieth century was under the banner of Islam, infused with Wahhabism. A crack force, known as the Ikhwan (brotherhood) helped the Al-Sauds, led by Abdulaziz ibn Saud, to re-conquer Arabia.

On seizing Mecca and Medina, the Holy Cities of Islam, from the ruling Hashemite family, who would subsequently supply monarchs for Iraq and Jordan, tight controls were imposed on forms of worship such as playing instruments and dancing in religious processions. Medieval executions, oppression of women and persecution of other religions followed. These barbarisms have subsisted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its foundation in 1932. Shared opposition to Arab Nationalism and Communism, combined with oil and associated wealth, brought support from the United States. Where the Saudi authorities have been unable to control their own extremists, as first with the Ikhwan in the 1930s, they have been brutally supressed and use of torture has been commonplace despite its prohibition under Islamic law.

Once the genie of militant Islam is released into the political sphere it is not easy to put back. The Taliban, as well as the specialists in global terror, Al-Qaida, and now IS have gone beyond the tenets of Wahhabism. In the face of a global order characterised by economic inequality, and the failure of Communism and Arab Nationalism to adequately address these problems, in many countries Islam became the political answer, notably in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which though Shi’a served as an inspiration to other parts of the Middle East.
Political Islam’s appeal derives from rejection of alien cultural norms. Though the Ottoman Caliph imposed homogeneous orthodoxies, its modern articulations are characterised by radical diversity. Since the end of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923 Islam has become increasingly malleable, and even post-modern, with a variety of online rulings now available to adherents.

In a stable relatively prosperous country such as Turkey it has bred a political movement under Tayyip Erdogan akin to an authoritarian Christian Democracy. But more reactionary interpretations have found fertile ground in the turmoil of the Levant since the defenestration of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and its weakening in Syria.

An influential article by Graeme Wood in the March edition of Atlantic Magazine makes the nightmarish case that the apocalyptic tendency derives from a not implausible interpretation of the Koran, and indeed that acute terror is mandated in the period between the restoration of the Caliphate, which IS of course claims to have achieved, and the apocalypse which will follow specific cataclysms predicted for Syria, indeed for a battlefield in a place called Dabiq, and Jerusalem.

George W Bush and Tony Blair failed to comprehend the deep-seated antipathy to colonisation the invasion of Iraq would unleash, especially where the motivation for intervention was veiled by thinly disguised lies. The imposition of democracy was seen as one more tool of Western exploitation following the imposition of Mandates after World War I and the despised Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire between the French and British.
IS has achieved the remarkable feat of fusing terror tactics learnt from leading members’ involvement in Al-Qaida, with military orthodoxy learned from the remnants of Saddam’s army and the development of a state that generates billions of dollars in revenue. And backed it with a theology. A viscous cross-fertilisation of Ba’thism with Islamic extremism occurred as adherents of both interacted in US captivity in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere after the invasion. The climate of sectarianism gave the two factions, both Sunni, common cause against a perceived Shi’a foe in Iraq.

 

Once the genie of militant Islam is released into the political sphere it is not easy to put back

 

The chaos of the Syrian civil war whose origins are connected to the destabilisation of the region after the US invasion of Iraq gave IS an opportunity to implement its ideology. The conquest of Mosul in Iraq in June 2014 led to the declaration of a new caliphate under the little-known figure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and it remains the dominant force in eastern Syria.

After the September 11th attacks George W Bush deviously alleged a connection between Saddam’s Iraq and Islamic extremism. Ironically the invasion and its aftermath has brought it about. A further irony is that growing moderation among some Al-Qaida ideologues offers hope for a possible dilution of IS extremism as reported in the Guardian in June 2015.

Erasure of historical memory is not peculiar to adherents of IS and other Wahhabi: Stalin destroyed Orthodox cathedrals to make way for monuments to Socialism and even the Normans, on conquering England, razed Anglo-Saxon churches, replacing them with their own edifices. But in the age of the Internet the emotion associated with the obliteration of sites of worship is rapidly disseminated; the so-called ‘propaganda of the deed’ has a greater reach than ever.

The shock troops of IS are simultaneously ultra-modern in their use of technology and rooted in an idealised view of the past that asserts a divine sanction for their actions. A recent book by Abdel Bari Atwan records how in one Twitter feed a British-born woman shares her “glad tidings”: “My husband Rahimuh Allah has done the best transaction you can make his soul [sic] and in return Jenna [heaven] may Allah accept you yaa shaheed [martyr]”. “Five hours earlier”, Atwan writes, “she had posted a picture of a bowl of cream dessert with bits of Toblerone chocolate stuck on top”. Martyrs might expect extra helpings of Toblerone in heaven: the banality of evil extending to the celestial sphere.

The staggering violence, witnessed in the territory of IS, and external terrorism is calculated to intimidate. This unflinching brutality seems to attract alienated and dislocated individuals, even in the West, enmeshed in an alternative cyberworld of bewitching possibilities: a distorted computer-game vision of individual heroism against mighty odds might motivate a terror attack.

The destruction of heritage is another way of instilling fear. But it also displays the great ambition of the movement to write its own history into the landscape, or failing that eradicate others’.

As a birthplace of agriculture and crossroads of civilisations Syria contains some of the great sites of historical memory from the magnificent Umayyad mosque in Damascus to the formidable Crusader castle of Krac des Chevaliers as well as Palmyra. It is more than mere aesthetic sensitivity that should cause us to mourn the loss of an irreplaceable common heritage that remind us of our complicated origins. This is a rejection of history by cyber bullies ravenous for online hits.

The Syrian civil war seems intractable and its fallout is spreading as the refugee exodus shows. It is not clear what effect the French pounding of IS’s headquarters in Raqqa will have. Any attempt to retake Palmyra might only lead to the detonation of explosives: direct foreign intervention in Syria could do more harm than good as Putin’s cynical incursion shows. But the scale of suffering compels continued engagement.

IS’s emergence is a legacy of the power vacuum brought about by the US invasion of Iraq, and is also a product of the tactic of ‘shock and awe’, of drone strikes and suspension of habeas corpus. Until we in the West elect governments that pursue ethical foreign policies we give succour to the advocates of terror.

In the West we must acknowledge and alter the historically exploitative relationship with the Middle East that has made it convenient to bolster regimes such as Al-Saud or offer long-term support for anti-democratic regimes in Egypt and elsewhere, and to tolerate the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

To a large extent the motivation for Western involvement in the region has been the extraction of oil, and yet this is the leading cause of climate change. If Europe and America can remedy the addiction to that energy source then we might start to address the problematic relationship with the Middle East.

Samuel Huntingdon’s famous warning of a clash of civilisation became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Palmyra reminded us that the dividing lines between East and West were never so stark. Paris proved it. Hellenic ideas served as inspiration to early Islamic scholars who preserved them for Christian ones. We must not allow anyone to threaten a global collective memory of, and indeed renewed aspiration to, the plurality of great civilisations.

Frank Armstrong is a cultural commentator, cook and historian