Heritage destruction and spikes in violence

16 November 2011

Dr Ben Isakhan looks to war-ravaged Iraq for the ultimate proof.

It has longed been assumed that attacks on national or religious symbols causes an immediate uprising in violence and deaths as mighty revenges are taken.

The United States’ response to the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York is an example that comes quickly to mind.

However, the link has never been proven, something that Deakin University Dr Ben Isakhan hopes to change, using fallout from September 11, 2001 – the invasion of Iraq – as the basis of his research.

Dr Isakhan has been awarded an Australian Research Council DECRA (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award) for his project: Measuring the Destruction of Heritage and Spikes of Violence in Iraq

“Since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in 2003, the Iraqi people have endured an extraordinary period of both heritage destruction and devastating violence,” Dr Isakhan said.

“This began during the battle phase of the war which brought with it ‘collateral damage’ in the form of an escalating death toll and severe damage to sensitive cultural and historical sites across the nation. 

“However, this cannot compare to the almost nine subsequent years of military occupation. In terms of cultural heritage, the very earliest days of the occupation saw an unprecedented degree of looting and arson in which important state institutions were the main target, including the National Museum, the National Library and Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art. 

“Since then a number of sensitive historic locations have suffered irrevocable damage like Mesopotamian archaeological sites, an Abbasid-era palace and mosque, an Ottoman-era mosque and the Hashemite Parliament House. 

“Paralleling these events, the coalition forces and the Iraqi government orchestrated an extensive project to ‘De Baathify’ Iraq, which included the tearing down of statues or motifs dedicated to the former regime and the transformation of various state buildings and monuments into military bases.

“It is undeniable that paralleling these events, Iraq has witnessed a corresponding upsurge in devastating violence with grim and complex battles fought between the occupying forces, the Iraqi armed services, various insurgent groups and terrorist organisations, as well as those between competing ethno-religious sectarian militias. 

“This ongoing hostility has also had ruinous consequences for Iraq’s cultural heritage with artefacts, symbols and monuments so often caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted by opposing groups.”

Perhaps the most well known example of this is the bombing of the stunning gold-domed Abbasid-era Al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006.

“This site is revered by the Shia Arab population and was deliberately targeted by Sunni insurgents,” Dr Isakhan said.

“What distinguishes the bombing of the Samarra mosque from the tragic array of cultural destruction that has occurred in Iraq since 2003, is that it has been widely cited as a contributing factor to the sharp spike in the bloodletting that immediately erupted across Iraq and the associated reprisal attacks on other sites of cultural, historic and religious significance.

“In other words, the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque is said to have set off a spiral of violence and further cultural and historical destruction.

“However, the assumption that underpins the supposed link between the bombing of this particular mosque and subsequent spikes in violence and destruction has never really been proven.

“Indeed, the question remains as to whether or not the cultural and historical depredation that Iraq has experienced in recent years correlates at all with the devastating spikes in violence.”

Even before winning his DECRA award in November, 2011, Dr Isakhan, has begun to develop his argument that the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage has enabled various groups to propagate their divisive rhetoric in the absence of a cohesive national identity and thereby resulted in an upsurge in horrific violence. 

“This DECRA award will allow me to take the project to another level, and if we can demonstrate  the link, it is important information we can use to find ways that might decrease the amount of bloodshed in conflict scenarios in the future.

“Invading or liberating forces, if they are more respectful of important symbols, might find themselves more welcomed.

“Equally, internal conflicts might be less costly in terms of human life is leaders would know that attacking an opponents’ important religious or community symbols will only cause a bloody backlash.”

Overall, Dr Isakhan’s project aims to:

  • Develop the world’s first database that documents, over a crucial almost nine-year period (2003-11), the destruction of heritage in Iraq.
  • Examine whether or not, and to what extent, a significant relationship exists between the heritage destruction documented in this database, and spiked of violence as documented in existing and reliable measures such as the Iraq Body Count database.Set a significant precedent in studies of both heritage and violence by providing innovative methods that can then be applied to other contexts (past, present or future) in which the destruction of cultural heritage and violence occur simultaneously - and to thereby enable policy formation that minimises (or prevents altogether) heritage destruction and spikes in violence during times of conflict.
Dr Ben Isakhan "The bombing of the Al-Askari mosque is said to have set off a spiral of violence and further cultural and historical destruction," says Dr Ben Isakhan.

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