You had me at ‘pretty much anything’

I did comment on the Centre for Law and Religion Forum, in an attempt to end any confusion over a Washington Post article, but the misunderstanding spread to Think Progress and a lot of small community sites, and work distracted me before I could make a(n undoubtedly ineffectual) comment here. To save anyone reading the rest of this painful nitpicking, when the Washington Post asked me what the Islamic State might destroy next, it had me at ‘pretty much anything’.

Total eradication

Washington Post journalist Justin Moyer contacted me after I confirmed the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah/Shrine-Mosque of Yunus. We ended up talking at 4.30am GMT. I was not as coherent as I would have liked.

The Islamic State…. [has] destroyed cultural artifacts including Sunni, Shia and Sufi sites [and churches, for example near Qamishli, Rojava, Syria],… and replaced the crosses on Mosul’s Syrian Orthodox cathedral with black flags.
“It indicates they are going for total eradication not just of their enemies but even of the possibility of people living together under their rule.”…

That is clear enough. The Islamic State is strategic (its psychological warfare is expert); and it may make a show of “respecting” non-conformists by offering the “choice” of (exile or) subjugation alongside conversion or execution; but, as its destruction of cultural property demonstrates, it will not even be satisfied with expelling, exploiting, converting or killing all of the non-conformists in its territory.

The Islamic State will only be satisfied when it has erased any evidence that non-conformist communities ever existed there, that different communities once lived together, that different communities once shared lives; it will only be satisfied when it has erased the possibility of the reconstruction of historic diversity in the future. And its enemies are, ultimately, anyone who is not its servant.

Pretty much anything

If it’s willing to destroy anything other religions – even other Muslims – hold sacred, what’s next?
“Basically pretty much anything in the Bible.”…

The Associate Editor for Religion at the Huffington Post, Yasmine Hafiz, appeared to understand my point:

This latest act by ISIS shows their disregard for holy places, even Muslim ones from the Sunni sect they claim to hail from. Sam Hardy, a professor [I wish, adjunct faculty] at the American University of Rome, told The Washington Post that he believes this shows that ISIS is willing to destroy, “basically pretty much anything in the Bible.” He added, “It indicates they are going for total eradication not just of their enemies but even of the possibility of people living together under their rule.”


Yet the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School, Prof. Mark L. Movsesian (@markmovsesian), said in the Centre for Law and Religion Forum and First Things:

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign…. Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”
On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations.

The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Ashur, Hatra, Nimrud and Nineveh feature in the Bible. The fact that something is in the Bible does not mean that it is Christian (or Jewish) – indeed, by definition, most of the significant places in the origin story of Christianity must be pre-Christian. However, I understand that others had presented the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah as an attack on Christianity, so Movsesian was predisposed to misunderstand my sleep-deprived observation in light of those presentations.

If I remember rightly, Moyer asked if there were any sites at risk that (primarily American) readers would recognise. Regardless, I had told Moyer that the Islamic State had destroyed Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Christian sites; I had given him the link to Christopher Jones’ analysis of mass destruction of Islamic cultural heritage sites in Iraq (1); as reflected in his questions, Moyer understood that. It would have saved me a lot of time if Moyer had explicitly shown that I understood that, too, but the subsequent misunderstanding was just that – a misunderstanding.

But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case….

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf – who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations – pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

The same day, I commented and pointed out that I had highlighted the destruction of the Mosque of Yunus as well as the Tomb of Jonah, but it was to no avail. In an extension of Movsesian’s explanation, the Senior Religion Reporter at Think Progress, Jack Jenkins, said:

It would be easy to cast this latest act of cultural violence as another example of ISIS attacking Christians…. Some, such as Sam Hardy…, immediately made this connection, telling the Washington Post that ISIS could potentially destroy “Basically pretty much anything in the Bible.”

It’s true, they could – as infidel/polytheist (shirk) sites, those sites are targets for destruction (though, as I’ve explained, that does not make them Christian and I had not made that connection).

Anyway, at that point in time, I had reported the ethnic cleansing of Shia Turkmen communities through cultural destruction (and other violence), as well as warned that the purchase of illicit Eastern Christian art could fund the ethnic-religious cleansing of Armenian and Assyrian communities, and demonstrated the use of propaganda regarding cultural destruction to drive the ethnic-religious cleansing of Syriac Catholic (and other minority) communities.

The press

If anyone had simply read what I said about the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah/Mosque of Yunus (or perhaps if I had insisted on discussion via e-mail instead of over the phone), none of this would have happened (without bad faith). I can only endorse Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s series on archaeology and the press.


1: I also provided links to Christopher Jones’ addendum and his history of the Tomb-Mosque of Jonah/Yunus.

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