On Jan. 4 President Trump created an international uproar when he first suggested that Iranian cultural sites were legitimate military targets. “They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” he told reporters on Air Force One the following day.
The response to those comments was surprisingly encouraging. Not only did preservationists, historians and international law experts express outrage – including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director and CEO calling such threats “abhorrent to the collective values of our society” — but there was significant criticism from across the political spectrum, including from some of the President’s strongest supporters. “We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Monday.
On one level, this outcry in support of protecting cultural heritage suggests that a majority of people recognize, almost intuitively, that a historic temple is never just a historic temple. Iran is home to countless incomparable sites, including 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient city of Persepolis and the Masjed-e Jāmé (“Friday Mosque”), each of which contributes to the identity of the Iranian people. To imply such sites are targets is a wider act of aggression. Indeed, throughout history, threatening to eradicate a group or a nation’s culture has almost always been about something more – namely, about eradicating people themselves. Cultural destruction has forever been part and parcel of ethnic cleansing. In 2001, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas —two 6thcentury statues, each well over 100 feet tall, carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan — the reasoning given by the militant group was that the statues “have been gods of the infidels.” The fact is that the destruction was part of a much larger campaign to eliminate the region’s Hazara ethnic minority, for which the statues were of irreplaceable religious significance.
The destruction of cultural sites — from libraries to places of worship to museums — is ultimately about erasing a people’s entire history. During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, Serb and Croat forces destroyed or damaged hundreds of mosques in their efforts to rid the region of Muslims. In Zvornik, which had been a historic Muslim trading post on the Drina River, so many traces of the town’s past had been eliminated that Brano Grujic, the Serb-installed mayor there, could falsely boast in 1993 that “there were never any mosques in Zvornik.” As Helen Walasek, the author of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage, writes, sites such as archives and museums were targeted in part because they reflected Bosnia’s pluralistic past. Such attacks were aimed at “eradicating any trace of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s historic diversity and traditions of coexistence.”
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