Word came last month that after holding him captive for more than a month, Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad and displayed his mutilated body on a column in a main square of Palmyra in Syria. Al-Asaad was an 82-year-old scholar who had worked for 50 years as the head of antiquities in Palmyra. He was also a father, grandfather and colleague to all who work for the greater preservation and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. On a board in front of Khaled al-Asaad’s body were written the charges the IS held against him: Loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, maintaining contact with the Assad regime’s intelligence, and managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols”.
On Tuesday, a United Nations agency released satellite images confirming the destruction of the main building of a Roman-era temple in Palmyra. Palmyra is the Syrian city famed for its majestic antiquities representative of what once was an important oasis, a trading city that lay between the two great empires of ancient Rome and Iran, connecting the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia. It also built ships that, as the great classicist Glen Bowersock has written, “took to the water to access the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean by way of the Euphrates”.
In addition to the beauty of its ancient architecture, comparable in Bowersock’s estimation only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece, Palmyra (he could also have said Fatehpur Sikri) is a reminder that we have always sought to connect with new and different cultures, absorbing many of their forms and qualities into our own languages, belief systems and artistic styles. What the ancient traders of Palmyra brought to that city, modern traders have brought to Mumbai and other Indian and global cities: new ideas, artistic forms and religious practices.
And while many of us celebrate this fact, others fear it. They fear the loss of a singular view of the world as theirs alone, something to be kept without change for all time. They see their truth as not only first in the world but as defining the world, determining right from wrong, good from bad, true from false. Any truth but theirs is blasphemy.
In another instance, and as justification for attacking the 8th century BC citadel of Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, 10 miles northwest of Mosul, Iraq, the IS forces said, simply, “We’re ridding the world of polytheism and spreading monotheism across the planet.” This is how the IS views the world, and why it murdered Khaled al-Asaad and displayed his bloodied, headless body in a public square: It is afraid of difference in the world.
The IS’s destruction of ancient sites is barbaric and the world should rise up to condemn it with a plentitude of voices. This is how we will defeat the IS. Not with military might alone, but with our embrace of multiple points of views and interwoven identities. The more we recognise that we have not one but multiple identities — national, religious, cultural, sexual and more — the more tolerant we will be of others. For ours is an interrelated world. Each of us shares an identity with another. To condemn another’s identity is to condemn part of our own.
Unesco is the UN voice on such matters, and its director general, Irina Bokova, has taken a leading role in condemning the IS’s destruction of ancient heritage in Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, she has done so by declaring the importance of such heritage to the national identities of these countries. In this case, Unesco is caught in a difficult situation.
On the one hand, it recognises that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity. All cultures are influenced by and in turn influence other cultures. Nor is any culture changeless, invariant, or static. All cultures are in a state of constant flux, driven by both internal and external forces.” And on the other, it holds that cultural heritage is “one of the basic elements of civilisation and national culture” and that “the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organised both nationally and internationally among states working in close cooperation.”
Unesco must resolve the inherent conflict between seeing culture as national (an integral building block of national identity) and global (belonging both to all nationals and to all humanity, a part of “humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity”). National identity is as artificial as nations themselves. It is not natural, rooted in the soil of a particular place or born of a common ethnic, linguistic or religious origin. It is made and evolves and changes, often dramatically, over the course of history. It is neither natural nor inevitable. It is not compelled by ethnic or linguistic purity, and it does not derive from below but from above, from the ambitions of the politically, socially and intellectually elite power-holders. Nationalism engenders nations, not the other way around.
Unesco must promote greater understanding of culture as transnational, rooted in the truth that, as sociologist Arjun Appadurai has argued, “We need to think ourselves beyond the nation.” This is the challenge before Unesco in the face of the IS: How to promote solidarity and commonality among disparate groups of people when state-based identities — such as Iraqi and Syrian — are in violent conflict or, as in the case of the IS, irrelevant.
In this respect, as in so many others, India is a great example for the world. It is a diverse and rambunctious democracy, a robust trading nation with a long and complex history of commercial relations with much of the world, and a dynamic diaspora embracing both its new and many homes and its ancient ties to older ones. India should seize this opportunity for leadership and defend difference at home and abroad.
There is no room for the IS’s ideology of fear and destruction. We should all celebrate Khaled al-Asaad’s legacy of service to the preservation and interpretation of Palmyra’s ancient historic artifacts. They serve not only as reminders of the past, but as lessons for the present and future.
The writer is president and CEO, J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles.