A bearded man dressed in the black taqiyah and white thawb of a devout Muslim addresses the camera. He stands before the fragment of a large Assyrian sculpture known as a lamassu – a protective deity that combines a bull’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a human head. ‘Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of God,’ the man explains in Arabic, with the poise of a museum docent. ‘The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did when they conquered lands. Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey. We do not care what people think or if this costs us billions of dollars.’
When he finishes, the video transitions to a museum gallery. Three men topple a life-sized sculpture from its pedestal. Others look on. In the ensuing montage men overturn sculptures, smash them with sledgehammers, and mutilate them with pneumatic drills. For two and a half minutes, these images of destruction are interspersed with shots of decimated sculptures strewn across the floor – often rendered in slow motion, lending the sequence a lyrical quality. The audio is no less carefully crafted: A lone voice chants a Qur’anic verse and then the sound of a nashid weaves through the duration of the video. In haunting tones, the song declares: ‘Demolish! Demolish! the state of idols / Hell is filled with idols and wood / Demolish the statues of America and its clan.’ Even for those who cannot understand the Arabic lyrics, the music – punctuated by the sounds of shattering stone and machine-gun fire – is mesmerising.
Released onto the Internet on February 25, 2015, the Islamic State video of iconoclasm in Iraq’s Mosul Museum provoked immediate outrage. The blogosphere began to teem with calls to action to protect antiquities from the locals – rehashing old imperial tropes about barbarism and civilisation. Some argued that teams should be sent into Iraq, ‘Monuments Men’ style, to rescue the cultural property that remained. ‘Now that Islamist madmen are on the loose across great swathes of the Middle East,’ Hudson Institute fellow Ann Marlowe reasoned in The Daily Beast, ‘we have reason to value the cultural imperialism of years past. It was rationalized, then, as saving treasures from barbarians. Whatever the truth of the matter in those days, there is no doubt now that the barbarians are back with a vengeance.’ In a lighter vein, cartoonist Patrick Chappatte depicted two jihadists leaving the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers in hand – one saying to the other, ‘My first time in a museum. This was awesome!’