The ISIS is the latest addition to the list of extremist organisations fighting in the name of Islam and is perhaps the most fundamentalist and scariest of all outfits. This bunch of militants, like the rest, is bent upon imposing its peculiar version of religion and is not hesitant in committing crimes of all kinds, such as killing innocent Kurds, raping Yazidi women and turning slaves into men from Iraq and Syria, its supposedly subjugated caliphate.
Apart from these atrocities, what distinguishes rather differentiates Daesh (ISIS) from other groups is its approach towards history, images and relics. Under the guidance and command of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organisation has decreed a war against all sorts of religious entities ranging from Ka’aba to Hajr-e-Aswad, and several other sacred objects. For them these distract from the true worship of God, Who does not require physical items to represent and remind Him.
With this attitude towards Islamic symbols, one could gauge their behaviour towards iconography belonging to other religions. One wonders about their stance towards works of art and pieces of heritage from the age of paganism and pre-Islam.
Once they succeed in capturing the territory of Iraq, they would have no qualms in destroying works from the great civilisation of Mesopotamia — a people who invented the art of writing, created statues of humans and animals, and constructed the first known structures of temples. In today’s Iraq and Syria, specimens of that civilisation’s achievement are scattered, not only in the museums of art and archaeology but also in the vast delta between Euphrates and Tigris. The historical artefacts are located in the region in the form of great relief sculpture from the courts of Assyria (some of these adorn the walls of the British Museum today).
It is feared that once ISIS gets control of the region that contains these segments of human history, either standing in the open for the last 5000 years or stored safely in museums, it would not hesitate to destroy these images of the past of the ‘others’.
Imagine the great Ziggurats of Sumer and Akkad, sculptures and reliefs from the palaces of Assyria, statues of Mesopotamian Civilisation, figurative painting from the Umayyad period, all on the verge of permanent disappearance, if these regions come under the control of ISIS. At the same time, think about millions of homeless, fatherless, husbandless humans, who are thrown out of their lands, physically abused or killed as their land is occupied by the ISIS. Who or what should be saved first from the sword of Caliph Baghdadi — statues from a museum in Baghdad and wall sculptures in Syria, or the inhabitants of a village in a Kurdish province? What is more urgent?
The answer is not simple. As a first response, one presumes that human life is the most important; so it is the duty of forces fighting the militants to save villagers and ordinary folk. Who knows if from amongst these people emerges an individual who creates works of extraordinary nature that would enrich the legacy of human achievement in art and culture?
At the same time, one feels the importance of saving the heritage of whole mankind, which can not be reproduced or replicated. No matter what subsequent generations produce or add, the early examples of humans’ experimentation with image-making hold utmost significance.
Thus the decision is difficult. The situation reminds of times, when Taliban ruled Afghanistan and destroyed the statue of Bamiyan Buddha. Mullah Abdus Salam Zaef, the foreigner minister of Mullah Omer, showed his surprise on world’s reaction to a piece of carved stone, in comparison to its (lack of) response to thousands dying of starvation in Afghanistan due to international sanctions. For him, the bombardment of Bamiyan was a way to attract international attention towards the misery of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Actually what the Taliban had suggested then and what everyone else can sense in today’s geo-political scenario is a moral dilemma — of human verses art. This was a debate amongst the citizens of Germany and adjoining countries during the Nazi occupation, where again the issue was whether to save the Jewish people or the art.
In the same lieu, one can include writers and artists, too, who have forsaken and abandoned their families in the service of art. One of the most prominent names in this regard is of Paul Gauguin, who left his wife and children in a miserable state in order to pursue his passion in art. Should one condemn him for his selfishness or ignore his cruel behaviour just because he created some great paintings?
There are many amongst us who have to choose between art and life. They could either support their family on an urgent basis or take a course in art which may have great possibilities but does not ensure stability in future. Perhaps, everyone has to face this issue at various levels, even in terms of dividing time between one’s studio space and with one’s children or parents.
It would be ironic but the individuals who succeed in art happen to be clear in their intentions and practices. For most, it is Art that is the most crucial option to pursue rather than human relationships no matter how sacred. They may not be thinking along these lines but the truth is that people die; it’s only works of art that survive and become part of whole human culture. This is at stake now in the Mesopotamia of past and Iraq of today. But should we save it, even if can not guarantee the lives of millions living just outside of museums and on historical sites. Like ISIS do we have a choice?