As a flood of fanboys’ tweets about “shirk” (polytheism) in Palmyra suggest, a structure built by monotheists for a monotheist has been destroyed outside Palmyra. Ceftali notified me that the Islamic State had destroyed Sheikh Mohammed Ali’s tomb, on Tal Mohamed Ali, north of Palmyra.
The sheikh’s body may be in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Does anyone know any more about the sheikh or the site?
Idolatry and massacre
According to the Islamic State, the resting places of saints are treated with devotion to the point of idolatry, so they must be destroyed. Palmyra, though, should fall outside of the Islamic State’s rules. Yet, when Palmyra was conquered by the Islamic State, Hassan Hassan explained that the ‘disproportionate attention ancient ruins have received, compared with human tragedies, has disturbed many. If Isis blows up the site, it would be largely because of this deemed hypocrisy.’
So, the destruction of Sheikh Mohammed Ali’s tomb is not a forerunner of the demolition of the Temple of Bel, the Roman theatre and other monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra. But even thinking about harm to religious sites in terms of risk to archaeological sites is wrong and counter-productive.
Weeks ago, Tadmur city councillor Nasser Al-Saer warned NBC’s Henry Austin and Ammar Cheikh Omar that the disappointed and discontented community, who lack adequate access to food, water and medicine, ‘believe that the international community cares about the stone statues much more than about us’ and some ‘actually want ISIS to destroy the relics and museums in response to the silence of the international community about what is happening here’.
Considering whether the Islamic State is planning iconoclasm, disruption of enemies’ military activity by threat, or blackmail/punishment, it seems that the Islamic State has taken Palmyra hostage to blackmail or punish the international community. But neither “blackmail” nor “hostage-taking” feels right, as a description, when the demand is action to stop barrel-bombing of civilian centres.
Silence or a different conversation?
Like beheading videos, which were circulated through face-to-face indoctrination and recruitment networks long before they were uploaded to YouTube, we should not mistake the medium of destruction images for the message. Starvation of the oxygen of publicity for destruction, then, would not bring an end to destruction, because the cause of destruction is not primarily to get publicity. The Islamic State’s genocidal destruction would persist, because IS is ideologically committed to the project. And the Islamic State’s political destruction would persist, because the hypocrisy that IS exploits would persist.
So, even those in the international community who are more willing to act to protect cultural property than civilian lives would have more success if they acted to protect civilian lives – for example, as the White Helmets and the Syria Campaign have advocated, by warning communities of bombing raids or implementing a no-fly zone.