Monday, December 7, 2015

"The vengeance of the Vandals": Culture and The Islamic State

Last week Hilary Benn, the Labour Party's Shadow Foreign Secretary gave a speech in the House of Commons on fighting ISIS that concluded with these words:

"...Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.

And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight."
Full Text at the Spectator
See also:
Hilary Benn's powerful lesson in the art of oratory -

I've got to say that Mr. Benn has pointed out a simple truth. The hard core think they are superior.
That's a serious error in perception and judgement, they aren't superior to shit. In the meantime though they are having their way over a fairly large swath.
From The New Criterion:

Film still from ISIS video showing the execution of Syrian soldiers by children in the amphitheater of Palmyra.
Little remains of the Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum save for its marble floor. Yet that floor tells its own story of the fall of the Roman Empire. Small circles, green and brown, blemish the light gray stone. The circles are not ordinary stains. These are the shadows of a cataclysm that shook Rome beginning on the night of August 23, 410 AD. The sack of Rome by Alaric and his army of Arian Goths broke the 800-year security of the walls of the Eternal City. Not since the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC, when the ancient Gauls descended on the Seven Hills, had the Pax Romana been so fundamentally challenged. As Alaric’s Goths swept through the city, fleeing merchants dropped and scattered their coins across the ground of the Basilica Aemilia, where they operated their shops. When the Goths looted and then burned the building, the heat of the fire calcinated the copper and bronze of the coins to the floor of the Basilica. Today those coins are still permanently affixed right where they fell.

Through the marks left by those coins, we can see how the merchants of the Basilica Aemilia no more anticipated the sack of Rome than we do the terrorist attacks on our own cities, whether New York or London or Paris, or Mumbai or Nairobi or Beirut, or any other center of free people. In an idle civilization, the prosperity and values of a Pax Romana or Pax Americana ultimately prove less appealing than we always assume, and one assault does little to prepare us for the next. Absent a fundamental reassertion of countervailing force, further attacks become not just a possibility but an inevitability.

How can it be otherwise? Only a civilization that recognizes the value of its enduring symbols can anticipate at what price barbarians will seek to destroy and cart them away. So it has been over the past year for those of us who have closely followed the wholesale “cultural cleansing” of ISIS-held territory in the Middle East, from museums to houses of worship to archeological sites of historical significance throughout Iraq and Syria, which has foreshadowed ISIS’s global ambition.
The dozens of cultural targets have ranged widely: from Shia mosques and shrines as the Sunni Salafists of ISIS have waged a doctrinal war against their co-religionists in a bid for tribal supremacy; to churches and monasteries, including (without irony) the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Der Zor, Syria; to the many priceless archeological sites that populate the Cradle of Civilization. Whatever valuables could be looted and moved have been sold on the black market. Architecture and larger relics have been bulldozed, jackhammered, attacked with rocket fire, and rigged with explosives.

Beyond the handheld videos, photographs, and tweets sent out by individual jihadists, the record of these actions has been made amply available as ISIS has produced a series of increasingly professional, high-definition films memorializing its path of destruction. In February 2015, ISIS released a video in the guise of an educational documentary about its rampage through the Mosul Museum. “Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah,” a soft-spoken host narrates in Arabic from inside the museum, drawing on examples set forth by the Prophet Muhammad as justification.
The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices. The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care what people think, even if this will cost billions of dollars.
At the sound of a synthesized bass drum, a dubbed soundtrack of Arabic singing mixes with machine-gun fire as a group of jihadists smashes the museum’s artifacts with sledgehammers through slow motion and cross-fade takes. At one point a caption reads “Quran 21:58 ‘he reduced them to fragments.’ ” As the rampage turns to defacing a 2,700-year-old Assyrian lamassu sculpture (one of the few artifacts in the museum, it turns out, that had not been a copy), a split screen shows a black and white image of its excavation. A caption explains how “These idols and statues were not visible in the days of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but were extracted by the worshippers of devils.”

Later, in spring 2015, ISIS reached the Roman city of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in occupied Syria, and found an even more compelling and ultimately valuable platform for its rampage. Palmyra’s Roman amphitheater became the backdrop for a slickly produced, multiple-viewpoint film of the execution of Syrian soldiers by ISIS teenagers, who shot the soldiers in the backs of their heads as they knelt on the ancient Roman proscenium with the black ISIS banner framed behind them. A month later, after Palmyra’s resident archeologist and scholar, the octogenarian Khaled al-As’ad, refused to divulge where the site’s antiquities had been hidden, ISIS publicly beheaded him in a square outside the city’s museum and tied his body to a column with his head between his legs and a sign that read “heretic” in Arabic. The ancient town was subsequently leveled by ISIS bulldozers, explosives, and gunfire.

Compared to its spectacle of murder, comparably less attention and less concern has been paid to this specter of vandalism. Yet attacks over apostasy and iconoclasm are part of the same fluid strategy of fanatical terror that forms a pretext for killing, raping, looting, and the further spread of lawlessness and chaos. The terrorism of 9/11 was as much about the destruction of the symbols represented by the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the jet planes as the murder of the thousands of people inside them. Similarly the public beheadings favored by Islamists demonstrate both the murder of their victims and the destruction of their bodies in equal fashion. In the symbolic battleground of asymmetrical warfare, the elimination of one form of destruction must therefore be matched by the suppression of the other.

Here again the fall of Rome provides a lesson. As we have seen in our war against militant Islam, so too did the people of the late Roman Empire face repeated victimization over their final century at the hands of Arian hordes. Just as we trade one Islamist foe for another—al Qaeda for ISIS—so too did Rome face a new and even worse Arian enemy forty-five years after the Gothic sack, with the rise of another tribe known as the Vandals.

“The march of the mujahideen will continue until they reach Rome,” promised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, otherwise known as ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh, a year ago. At the time, his threat was discounted as mere rhetoric from an underestimated organization that was, in fact, less than a year away from executing its brazen attack on France. So too did the breach of 410 AD, known as the “first sack of Rome,” leave the Eternal City unprepared for the Vandal assault that ultimately led, as Edward Gibbon lamented, to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.....MORE
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction (1836), a painting based on the Vandal sack of Rome of 455 AD