The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not only achieving territorial gains in Syria. The militants are also succeeding in obliterating the country’s cultural existence – and replacing it with a new culture that serves their extreme narrative.
The culture being constructed by ISIS is an effort to “revive,” or more appropriately, manufacture, a culture to which their fighters can belong despite their distance and alienation from home.
Most of these jihadists have difficulty feeling a sense of belonging to or identifying with the European culture of their home countries.
ISIS offers them a new territorial space in Syria to construct and participate in a new culture and society, one to which they can easily belong.
In order to create this society, ISIS are strategically preying on the natural human inclination to belong. In the case of the British jihadists, for example, some second-generation Muslims feel they are “inbetweeners,” unable to fully relate to either their parents’ culture or British culture.
The evident danger is the appeal that ISIS’s culture, as promoted in their propaganda, requires impressionable young people seeking a wider sense of belonging. With ISIS allowing jihadism to transcend martyrdom, it is now a different kind of destructive jihadist culture emerging that predominantly thrives on the tactic of demolishing Syria’s heritage and cultural sites, in order to author a new historical legacy in 40 to 50 years’ time from now.
As the bearers and transmitters of Syrian cultural heritage, the dispersal of Syrians across the world, far from their homeland and their material cultural and historical heritage, is a profound cultural catastrophe. Not only because the displaced Syrians who unwillingly left their homeland suffer the loss of cultural memory – to compound the humanitarian and psychological disasters have they suffered – but also because their departure leaves a vacuum of culture in Syria.
The evident danger is the appeal that ISIS’s culture, as promoted in their propaganda, requires impressionable young people seeking a wider sense of belonging
As ISIS have demonstrated by their actions, they are intent on demolishing Syrian cultural memory, wiping the slate clean and rewriting history to support their extreme narrative of terror.
With this, ISIS are seeking to establish themselves, not only as the colonizers of Syria, but as the “new Syrians.” ISIS recognises that it must exterminate all symbols of the existing Syrian culture manifested by its heritage (e.g. artefacts, historical sites and monuments), rip out the roots of the country’s cultural memory leaving nothing left, in order for the new, forcibly-planted culture to grow successfully.
To justify these acts, the organization claims that it is getting rid of all icons of heritage and religious monuments to leave an unobstructed path to Islam. However, this pretence conceals the real reasons behind ISIS’s policy of destruction.
In the first place, this is the removal of any and all any obstructions to their own control and narrative in order to gradually become the living God.
By erasing the cultural memory of the Syrian people, demolishing moral codes and severing cultural ties, they can create their own legacy as living icons for the next generation in Syria.
ISIS are keenly aware of the danger of memories, civilizations and achievements in art and beauty that existed in Syria that give Syrians their pride and identity.
With Syrians deprived of historical memory and cultural expressions such as art (apart from ISIS’s own art which promotes violence and their own narratives) or self-expression to promote critical thinking, the militants are ultimately creating a society of people who will be easily controlled and susceptible to the narrative and ideology of their colonizers.
Alongside this overarching aim, the destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria is a policy that serves a number of purposes for ISIS and these illustrate the group’s political and mercenary cynicism rather than any true religious motivation. The publicity their cultural destruction gains fuels their war of propaganda.
ISIS are aware of the power that their displays of brute vandalism exert through the media attention they garner. They have realised that western countries are more likely to pay attention to cultural heritage destruction, as after a certain point people are unable to stomach images of human torture and humanitarian disaster but will continue to look at media showing heritage destruction, this plays into the ISIS propaganda machine and the expansion of their psychological warfare.
Parallel to this, the organization is generating considerable income from illicit trade in looted artefacts (the majority of which they do not actually destroy, but sell) which is in turn fuelling their war of violent conquest.
ISIS’ war is not only colonizing Syrian lands and territories. It is also appropriating and distorting the Syrian existence by erasing the land of indigenous Syrians. At the moment, this very real danger is obscured by the fog of war, but it will have a considerable impact on Syrian generations for decades to come.
ISIS is conducting a mental and psychological war of conquest to justify their war of extermination, classifying who is religious and who is less religious, who is Muslim and who is not, who is Syrian and who is not, who deserves to belong to Syria and who does not, and who deserves to live and who does not.
By: Halla Diyab