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.
ISIL’s ‘legacy of terror’ in Iraq: UN verifies over 200 mass graves
Investigators have uncovered more than 200 mass graves containing thousands of bodies in areas of Iraq formerly controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), according to a United Nations human rights report out on Tuesday.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said the 202 mass grave sites were found in governorates of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Anbar in the north and western parts of the country – but there may be many more.
In the joint report, Unearthing Atrocities, the UN entities said the evidence gathered from the sites “will be central to ensuring credible investigations, prosecutions and convictions” in accordance with international due process standards.
Ján Kubiš, the top UN official in Iraq and the head of UNAMI, said that the mass grave sites “are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.”
“Determining the circumstances surrounding the significant loss of life will be an important step in the mourning process for families and their journey to secure their rights to truth and justice,” he added.
Between June 2014 and December 2017, ISIL seized large areas of Iraq, leading a campaign of widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, “acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide,” the report states.
Traumatized families have the ‘right to know’
The UNAMI-OHCHR report also documents the “significant challenges” families of the missing face in trying to find the fate of their loved ones.
At present, they must report to more than five separate authorities, a process that is both time-consuming and frustrating for traumatized families.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underscored that the families “have the right to know.”
“ISIL’s horrific crimes in Iraq have left the headlines but the trauma of the victims’ families endures, with thousands of women, men and children still unaccounted for,” she said.
“Their families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones. Truth, justice and reparations are critical to ensuring a full reckoning for the atrocities committed by ISIL.”
Victim-centred approach needed
Among its recommendations, the report calls for a victim-centred approach and a transitional justice process that is established in consultation with, and accepted by, Iraqis, particularly those from affected communities.
It also urges a multidisciplinary approach to the recovery operations, with the participation of experienced specialists, including weapons contamination and explosives experts and crime scene investigators.
Alongside, it also calls on the international community to provide resources and technical support to efforts related to the exhumation, collection, transportation, storage and return of human remains to families, as well as their identification, particularly by helping strengthen the national Mass Graves Directorate.
The Islamic State’s reviving scheme
Despite the fact that ISIS lost 98 percent of its controlled territory, it is aiming for a reforming and coming back in the Sunni populated areas in Syria and Iraq. Due to the current war situation and its developed financial resource. ISIS used to relay on the territory under its control to collect billions of dollars through criminal activities such as taxation, extortion, robbery and the illegal sale of the curd oil. Now the group has shown its ability to collect money regardless of controlling large areas.
After the rise of ISIS in 2015 and the takeover of vast areas in Syria and Iraq, its budget estimation reached $6 billion, as a result, the Islamic State is considered as the wealthiest terrorist entity in the history. The question posed is how such a terrorist group budget could become equivalent to a state-nation budget? In 2015 the Islamic State main financial resources were; oil and gaze which gathered about 500$ million in 2015; taxation that generated approximately $360 million in the same year and finally; about $500 million robbed from bank vaults in Mosul.
Today the situation is different, the Islamic State has lost the majority of its territory. The global coalition had destroyed ISIS infrastructures in the Middle East as well as its communication routes and had killed the idea of the hegemonic Islamic caliphate in the region. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is struggling to control the last 2 percent of its territory. Therefore, its revenue stream from the main resources has been rapidly shrinking out.
As a result, ISIS no longer relies on the controlled territory for its financial survival. For example, ISIS leadership may have smuggled around $400 million out of Syria and Iraq. Laundering this money through fake entity is likely to occur especially in Turkey. Some other cash could be converted into valuable items and stockpiled to be used in the future.
The stockpile cash will provide the group with more than enough fund to continue as a clandestine terrorist movement with the ability to conduct campaigns of guerrilla warfare in the region. On the other hand, ISIS has supported its financial situation with a variety of funding portfolio. It has developed a range of criminal activities that do not require controlling territories such as kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling and trafficking in antiquities.
Over the next years, the international community seeks to provide help for Syria and Iraq to recover. The reconstruction aid could provide an attractive target for the Islamic State and a possible financial boost to its comeback. It is possible that the Islamic State begins skimming off reconstruction contracts, the only way is to establish connections with the local officials which is not difficult for a terrorist entity with a huge amount of cash. Finally, the rise of the Iranian threats in the region reflects in many stakeholder’s fears from an Iranian’s control through Hezbollah over ISIS past territories. Therefore, a continuing support from regional states to the terrorist group is possible if ISIS adopts a suitable strategy to the supporters interests in the region.
The combination of the criminal activities, the reconstruction plan and the regional states financial support in the future will encourage the Islamic State to regroup and reorganize. For instance, in Kirkuk, the militants created a fake checkpoint to attack security forces earlier this year. Moreover, in Diyala and Saladin, sleeper cells activity began to hit back. The U.S. policy in the Middle East tends to view the war on terror as separate phases while jihadis consider it as one long war. Until the West recognize this, ISIS is likely to come over to repeat its strategy and to reviving the Islamic caliphate project in the future.
Religious radicalism as a trend
IN RECENT YEARS, much has been said about radicalism and its varied offshoots. True, the number of terrorist acts climbs up, the popularity of extreme right political forces grows, and the wave of left radical and anti-globalist movements, migration crises and international tension is rising. This is how everyday realities look in many countries of the world.
France is one of the European countries in which radical trends are only too obvious. At the 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, two radical politicians who represented anti-establishment political movements, reaped 41% and 51% respectively of the votes cast by young voters aged between 18 and 24. On the whole, the Fifth Republic is getting accustomed to violence against the law and order structures, destruction of material assets during rallies, protest acts that keep lyceums and universities blocked for a long time, and rejection of republican values that looked unshakable not long ago. Today, when fifty years separate us from the May 1968 events, we can talk about “banalization of protests” not only among the groups on the margins of society but also among its law-abiding part.
Late in 2015, after a series of terrorist acts in France a group of scientists, mostly sociologists of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) launched a large-scale research project to identify the factors responsible for the spread of radical ideas among the younger generation. In April 2018, the results were published in a monograph The Temptation of Radicalism one of the hits on the French book market.
The project is a unique one: for the first time, academic science turned its attention to the younger generation rather than to terrorist acts and those who commit them; it has become interested in the process of radicalization and the factors that plant the ideas of radicalism in the minds of high school students.
A vast, and most interesting, part of the book that deals with religious radicalism, one of the main objects of attention of the public and the media, offers two important conclusions that devalue the old and generally accepted opinions.
Sociologists have detected two component parts or two stages in religious radicalism: the “ideological” as devotion to the fundamentalist religious trends and “practical,” the adepts of which are more than just religious fanatics – they justify violence for religious reasons.
The authors of the book under review who obviously prefer the term “religious absolutism” to “religious fundamentalism” have repeatedly pointed out that it is present in all world religions; the poll, however, revealed that religious absolutism was more typical of Muslim high school students.
Religion, or to be more exact, extreme Islamist trends combined with the male gender is the main factor of religious radicalization of the French youth.
This sociological study has demonstrated that the French national and confessional politics that for many years relied on the thesis that radicalization among the younger generation was caused by social and economic factors should be revised. This book made a great contribution to the broad and far from simple discussion of the place and role of Islam in French society, into which not only extreme right political movement are involved. In his speech of May 22, 2018, President of France “poured cold water” on the plan to shake up the banlieues devised by Jean-Louis Borloo. The president pointed out that more money poured into sensitive zones would not solve the main problem of radicalization.
first published in our partner International Affairs
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