Wars of Aggression as Cultural Events

The International Community has been witnessing in the recent months a dramatic upsurge in the exploitation of cultural heritage, be it its destruction or the ambiguous endorsement of its ownership.

This brought to the lime light the relationship between culture, terrorism and warfare; making it progressively clearer that the protection of the common cultural heritage of mankind is a security imperative and a crucial component of sustainable development.

What we have here is a dual manifestation of the exploitation of peoples’ cultural heritage. In one occasion, the promoted narrative is served by the absolute obliteration of the cultural heritage; and in another occasion the promoted narrative is served by claiming ownership or rights to stewardship of certain cultural property.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the pressing reality of terrorist activities; and I will leave aside the aspect of state actors using cultural heritage to claim territorial rights, as an extremely complex, sensitive and by nature inconclusive and irresolute subject, that is meant to be dealt independently from any association with terrorism.

The complexity that the destruction of cultural heritage entails when serving the needs of terrorist organizations is rather daunting. In fact, the trafficking of cultural heritage objects can serve not only as means of financing, but also as means of recruitment through the creation of jobs for extremely impoverished, with no other viable alternative of livelihood, people.

At the same time, the trafficking and the demolition of cultural property and the subsequent obliteration of cultural heritage have often been linked with destabilizing efforts. Cultural heritage, as associated with statehood, hinders many terrorist groups, such as ISIS, in their quest to create a crushing homogenization of vast territories, under the group’s core identity; be it religion or political ideology. Cultural heritage is a record of the past; hence, its trivialization and destruction sets the stage for the new, imposed upon, cultural and historical narrative.

These activities are not an innovative means of warfare ascribed to the contemporary terrorist organizations such as ISIS. It has been a practice of aggression against communities and their distinct cultural heritage for centuries; taking the most known examples of the early Christian Church against idolatry, aggression during civil wars (such as the Yugoslav war in the 90s), or Nazi tactics.

Being aware of the danger I run here, by citing the Church, the Nazis and brutal civil wars in the same line; my point is that destruction of the cultural past is a widely and inter-temporally used tactic and a very effective one. It has the devastating effect of acting as a centrifugal force within communities; accelerating the process of “divide and conquer” and at the same time hindering the post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation, including the return of displaced persons (who after the destruction of their environment as they knew it, they face problems in being accepted and integrated into the new status quo).

Cultural heritage has a strong link with the formation and the fostering of national identity. It is a powerful enabler and driver of sustainable development, by attracting investment and promoting green stable job opportunities. Moreover, it represents the continuum of the re-creation and alteration of the expressions of cultural heritage, in response to the historical evolution of a given group or many groups that could be found in historical/cultural connection. The obliteration of cultural heritage of local populations denies them the chance to employ Cultural Diplomacy, for the purpose of creating alliances with other groups sharing common cultural heritage expressions, isolates these groups and ultimately this identity confusion fuels political manipulation and demagogy.

Cultural heritage is also a source of local development which has immediate repercussions on employment and the economic vitality of various sectors and specific traditional activities. It can be a positive ground for unity within the community. The promotion of cultural heritage improves self-image and confidence in a shared future and reinforces the social cohesion . Ergo, the destruction of cultural heritage could function as a serious weapon of social fragmentation and destabilization.

This is particularly true for collectivist cultures, or else high-context cultures, tend to define the group as “the basic unit of social perception; the self is defined in terms of in-group relationships; in-group goals have primacy or overlap with personal goals; in-group harmony is a value” (Carnevale and Choi, 2000: 106). The categorization of a society as collectivist is particularly important, in the effort to understand the social dynamics, where groups have such an ideology, culture and/or philosophy that aim to inform the identity of its members in a way that, it permeates all social contexts, not merely those in which the group’s social identity is explicitly made salient.

With a cyclical mode of argumentation, cultural heritage preservation helps also to rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities and link their past with their present and future. Cultural heritage tied with identity of the community to which it belongs, represents unique relationships that populations have with their surroundings. Hence, the process of post-conflict rehabilitation and reconciliation would become much more volatile, in the absence of cultural heritage acting as common ground.

Cultural heritage is critical component of resilient societies before-during and after crises. So, my point is that, dealing with the phenomenon is not an unrealistic and cruel prioritization of stones over human lives, but rather an insightful and pro-active approach to security and stability; learning from the past and actually acting timely for a change.