The Scatterbrained Syncretist








Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Alan likes to provoke me, so he emailed me and asked:

"What is your take on the museum lootings?"

It's a nasty piece of work.

John Hawkins at Right Wing News wrote:

"In my opinion, the whole hubbub about the Iraqi museum being looted is much ado about...well I won't say nothing, but quite frankly it's not all that important in the scheme of things."

Well, I have an opinion too. I grew up in a world where art and art objects were highly prized. You'd think I'd know better than to become an artist...but I am a human, and we are all fools.

Like art, history is a wonderful window on the human condition. We have often observed how journalists' ignorance of historical facts and processes often make their war reporting seem like it is from another universe. Writers like Victor Davis Hanson and Bernard Lewis are instructive because of their grasp of history.

Since I recognize the centrality of history and beauty, I can't agree with John Hawkins about the insignificance of the looting of antiquities in Iraq. I have to say that, to me, it is a great loss. (Surely there is room for different opinions about the balance between the value of actual humans and the treasure of human culture.) Nonetheless, he makes telling points about the hypocrisy of those who try to use this event for polemical purposes. They don't give a damn about the heritage these artifacts embody any more than they care about the Iraqi Babies™.

The museum looting should be seen in a larger context...actually in two larger contexts. First, as an event during a war, and second as a part of the Muslim program of iconoclasm and the falsification of history.

Should the American military have protected the museums? Of course they should the extent that it was possible to do that. Was it possible? I wonder. The fog of war hasn't yet lifted and the facts are uncertain and fragmentary (sort of like the antiquities themselves). What we do know is that Saddam's goons have been looting Iraq for decades. Many objects disappeared from the museum during the chaos in the early 90s. We know that the museum wasn't open to the public, so we can't even determine when things disappeared from the collection. One could argue that even though people couldn't view and study the artifacts, they were being preserved for the future...but were they? We don't really know.

It's been reported that planners were concerned about bombing the museum and successfully prevented that. Now some say that there were concerns expressed about possible looting and our military failed to act on those concerns. Perhaps that will turn out to be the middle of a war there is disorder and some things get lost. I'm sure that we are analyzing this and working on ways to prevent a recurrence in the future.

I've seen reports that US soldiers were fired at from the museum and chose not to return fire. Is that true? If true, was it the right decision? I can't make that judgment. I wasn't there and can't know all the details of the situation or what options were available. I may be dumb enough to be an artist, but I see no virtue in pronouncing on things beyond my competence.

It has been reported that looters had keys to the vaults. That reflects on the trustworthiness of the museum staff, who may have an interest in concealing their own opportunistic crimes by reflecting blame onto the Americans. (I have known staff from many museums who would never fail to protect the objects under their charge, so I find this particularly shocking...until I remember that Iraqi curators may have been selected more for Ba'athist loyalty than curatorial dedication.)

There have been reports of journalists (of undisclosed nationality) being stopped at the border with smuggled paintings. One hopes these are not the same journalists who are criticizing the US military for allowing the looting...but one never knows. Likewise, the looting has been overstated by the press. And some looted artifacts have been reported on the market in Paris already.

Warfare is chaotic and since it is a contest for control, it seems absurd to expect armies to be able to exercise control over situations before they control them. Much of the press' complaining reflects their ignorance and incuriosity about warfare and history more than failure on the part of our military. How could reporters expect the liberation of a city or country to be effected without looting or revenge? Only by never having examined the many examples in the historical record. Was the liberation of Iraq accompanied by the usual amount of this stuff...or was it worse or better than other liberations? If I were a journalist, I'd want to know. But it seems that in some ways things were not as bad as they often are. The Americans didn't sack Iraq and that is a major improvement over the historical norm.

On the other hand, Daniel Pipes wrote:

"The empty shell of the national library testifies mutely to the excesses of a country singularly prone to violence against itself."

And that brings us to the second layer of context...the Muslim hostility to the past. (I know they are supposed to revere the past...even want to live in it...but that is an imagined past.)

In the last few years Muslim iconoclasm and revisionism been responsible for the destruction of important antiquities in many places.

We all remember the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. John Hawkins might note that this outraged a world that was rather complacent about the suffering of the Afghan people under the Taliban.

There was less public awareness of the Saudi demolition of Albanian mosques after the Kosovo war in 2000. That was before the Wahhabi movement was on many Westerners' radar.

In late August of 2002, The Saudis bulldozed the Ajyad fortress in Mecca, saying, "This is in the interest of Muslims all over the world". At the time, this was important to the Turks who saw their history being annihilated and to antiquarians, but beyond that, nobody really cared about Saudi Arabia destroying the evidence of Ottoman occupation. The world was paying attention to other buildings destroyed by Saudis.

For years, the Palestinians have been systematically destroying the archeological evidence under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

To offer some context for the destruction of antiquities in Iraq, I can think of these four examples (Buddhas, Albanian mosques, al-Ajyad fortress and Temple Mount). With a few days spent in research, you could probably come up with a much more complete picture. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a program to erase and rewrite the past.

There is a similar revision of the literature. This includes many spurious documents like the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion which was the basis for the hit series Horseman Without A Horse that was broadcast from Egypt last Ramadan. Or the fabricated Ben Franklin prophecy which I last saw in the Arab News (sorry, can't find the link). The Arab world is awash in false accusations, fabrications, slurs and blood libels.

Muslims have been active in suppressing inconvenient literature...usually accommodated by Western progressives who are eager to avoid offending them.

Finally, to answer Alan's question, I think the museum looting is very significant. Not as an American crime (Iraqis did the looting) but as yet another example of Muslim hostility to the past, to truth and to beauty. I wish the evidence allowed a different conclusion.

It will be a long war.


Update September 17, 2003: The leader of the investigation into the looting, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos made this report.