[If we live in a world where cultural treasures are neither respected nor protected, questions about the individual artist become irrelevant. The following is a strong statement about what happened after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and its consequences.]
THE INDEPENDENT London
CRIMES AGAINST CULTURE ARE REMEMBERED FOREVER
The Muslim world will ask why US forces let the looting happen and produce a simple answer: they hate Islam
22 April 2003
The burning of books and the destruction of works of art is so powerful a symbol of barbarism that the stench of it hangs in the air long afterwards: it is something impossible to forgive, impossible to forget. There was an ancient Greek called Herostratus who burned down the Temple of Artemis for the sole reason that he thought that his action would make his name remembered; he was quite right. That sort of action is not easily forgotten.
Such acts of infamy and enormity form a grim historical catalogue. When the Nazis burnt 250,000 books of degenerate tendency in the Opernplatz in Berlin on 10 May 1933, they demonstrated to the world the scale of the wickedness to come. It was truly remarked that those who begin by burning books will end by burning people, and the modern German state has wisely marked this act as belonging among the most horrible of the Third Reich's actions by putting up a moving memorial at the site.
Those who preside over vast cultural losses are not readily forgiven by history. The worst of Henry VIII's excesses was the sacking of the monasteries, with the destruction of an unknowable volume of treasures, and the dissipation or burning of great libraries. Those losses can never be recovered, and an entire culture disappeared in a very few years.
The most celebrated of such acts of vandalism, as every schoolboy used to know, was the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. Traditionally, this was dated to the seventh century, and ascribed to the Caliph Umar; he was always supposed to have said that if the books of the library conformed to the word of God, they were unnecessary; if they contradicted it, they were pernicious; in either case they could be destroyed without further consideration.
The story, of course, is complete rubbish, and Umar almost certainly had nothing to do with the destruction of the library. In reality, the main museum and library were destroyed during the civil war of the third century AD and a subsidiary library was burned by Christians in AD 391. Islam, from its founding, had a respect for learning that greatly exceeded anything to be found in the rulers of Europe and Christendom, who were satisfied to sit around telling ignorant lies about other cultures.
On the weekend of 12 April, as everybody knows, acts of comparable vandalism and cultural loss took place in Baghdad. The Museum of Archaeology was looted in a systematic way, and on a gigantic scale, and the treasures of this ancient civilization lost, some perhaps forever. The National Library and Archives and the library at the Ministry of Religious Endowment were set on fire, and a whole nation's history disappeared in a few hours.
My colleague Robert Fisk reported on this destruction at the time, and it is impossible to add anything to his rage and passion. It is one of the ugliest tragedies of this war, and there is no doubt whatever that, even though the Americans did not carry out the looting and burning themselves, they stood aside with complete indifference and allowed it to take place. They simply did not care, and these acts, which will not soon be forgotten, will be laid at their door as evidence of their indifference to this culture, and their inconceivable arrogance.
I thought this war justified, until this evidence that it was being conducted in an improper and uncaring way. It would not have been hard to foresee that law and order would have been difficult to maintain in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi regime, and it would have been quite proper for American troops to have shot looters in these circumstances. That is what war consists of, and it would have saved a culture from this catastrophe.
Not everyone accepts this, and my colleague Johann Hari the other day put the case for looting in celebratory tones. "The war took three weeks and the anarchy will last a fortnight at most. Weigh that against a certainly far longer period under Saddam and his deranged sons, and I think the choice is a no-brainer... Much of what we have been seeing is a spontaneous redistribution of wealth from the disgusting, corrupt élite who thrived under Saddam towards the wider population.
"True, he lamented the "unjustifiable and senseless acts" which took place in "Baghdad's hospitals and museums", but he then argued that "arresting the suspicious and firing guns to protect property rights" was an understandable mistake caused by the "praiseworthy wish of the Allied forces to avoid being seen as oppressive."
That, with respect, is nonsense, and even if it were true, it would hardly address the point that what a fortnight of anarchy can achieve is the destruction of a very large slice of Iraq's culture and history. It is just not true to present this as a necessary "choice", as if the burning of the national archives were an inevitable stage to be gone through before freedom could be attained. It is simply something that the American troops allowed to happen; and the entire Muslim world will be asking why, and producing a simple and incontrovertible answer: they hate Islam; they hold Islamic history and life in complete contempt; they don't believe that there is anything much worth preserving from the country they have "liberated"; and now these ignorant and thuggish new rulers are asking for respect. Well, after that fortnight of listlessly observed anarchy, they will find it very difficult to command. From the point of view of the Muslim world, no-brainer is exactly the word.
There is nothing to be done about the libraries, which are gone, though their destruction will not quickly be forgotten. The contents of the museum, however, may not be permanently lost, though it will be extremely difficult to reconstruct the collection in anything like its previous substance. It seems likely that some of the most important pieces were stolen to order – there are pieces in the museum that could hardly have been removed by any other means than a forklift truck; and the curators believed that a lot of the most valuable objects were safe in heavily secured basements, which in the event were accessed and ransacked. Some of those pieces may have disappeared for a good long time into private palaces, and though not permanently lost, they may take decades to resurface.
Many pieces, however, may have been lifted in an opportunistic way, to be quickly sold in the region's markets, and a concerted effort now could conceivably do something to repair this gigantic disaster.
Above all, though one shrinks from the proposal, at this point the authorities ought to be working with dealers and collectors of the shadiest variety, trying to track down what can be rescued of the museum's treasures. A lot of it has been destroyed: but a good deal has simply been stolen, and for the moment it still exists.
There is no prospect whatever of restoring the museum's collection to its previous state, and I don't believe that it is in anyone's power to recover more than a tiny proportion of the treasures. The rest of it has quite simply vanished for good. But what we are talking about here is a gesture by the US to show that, despite all previous evidence to the contrary, it does hold Middle Eastern culture in some kind of respect, and is prepared to do something to maintain it. Without that, relations will be defined by the burning of libraries and the looting of museums, and remain beyond repair.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
Philip Hensher at THE INDEPENDENT