Friday, March 13, 2015

Fahrenheit 451 revisited (revised)

Since the Islamic State is currently among the limited roster of phenomena that the media follow, we are informed of this:

While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.

Well, ISIL will do anything for attention;  naturally it was a public holocaust, not covert vandalism: compare the public book-burnings by the Nazis.   But what stands out is this lesser-known fact:

During the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the library was looted and destroyed by mobs. However, the people living nearby managed to save most of its collections and rich families bought back the stolen books and they were returned to the library.

Mobs, that weren’t even making any particular political point.  (They also looted and vandalized Iraqi museums.)  

A couple of years ago, during the Azawad adventure in Timbuktu, Salafist takfiris destroyed ancient books, mausoleums, and musical instruments.   And for centuries, the locals have looted archeological sites.

Prior to that, it was the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, repeatedly looted in the early 1990’s (before the U.S. came in).  Showing how little they cared, the Afghans went on to use what remained as a military base, which was duly rocketed and destroyed.
Subsequently, the collection is being replenished from holdings long faithfully curated in Switzerland and Germany, now donated.

Sculpture from Nineveh,
being taken to the British Museum for safekeeping

[Update 9 March 2015]   Fouad Laroui has just made the same point in his latest radio essay, “On touche le fond”:  The depredations  of Da`ech "justifient, a posteriori, le pillage colonial".

[Footnote for the young.    The title of this post is a double allusion:  to Ray Bradbury’s novel, and to the Bob Dylan album Highway 51 Revisited.]

[Update]  For our viewing pleasure, Da`ish has followed this up with videos depicting their Art Critic Commandos smashing ancient statues with hammers and electric drills.
In a kind of scholarly pun, IS attackers both destroyed ancient Assyrian statues  from the days of Nineveh, and kidnapped hundreds of modern "Assyrian" Christians (no relation except the name) in Syria.

 Ancient Assyrian lamassu.
This one, at least, is safe in Chicago.

In recent years, there has been much squawking ex partibus infidelium (as well as from American indigenes) about Western preservation of their treasures, demanding the items’ return.   But nota bene:  It is only thanks to the labors of colonialists and scholars, that things like the Rosetta Stone, or  early Arabic manuscripts, or greenfield artefacts, have survived intact.

[Update, 5 Mar 2015]  They're still at it.  Bulldozers this time:


A look back, to an earlier post about  the preservation of incunabula:

For more on Islamist destruction of antiquities -- and the very selective Western response:

Further examples of bibliocide and historicide, from Muslim history.
Re the 8th-century ruler al-Mahdi bi-'llah, and his suppression of the Persian-leaning dualists:

The Caliph Mahdi distinguished himself by an organised persecution of these enemies of the faith.  He appointed a Grand Inquisitor (Sâhibu l-Zanâdiqa … ) to discover and hunt them down.  If they would not recant when called upon, they were put to death and crucified, and their books were cut to pieces with knives.  Mahdi’s example was followed by Hâdi and Hârûn al-Rashid.
R.A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907)

In 850, the Caliph al-Mutawakkil destroyed the holiest site of Shiah pilgrimmage, the shrine of the martyr Hussein in Karbala.   Since that time, many other Shiite monuments have been attacked, down to our own day, becoming particularly vicious once Saddam Hussein was removed from power:  he had been a lid on a boiling kettle.

[Update 7 March 2015]  In other news, Satan has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State:

[Update 8 March 2015]  Another day, another atrocity.  This time it’s Hatra’s turn.
The actualités on Médi1 this morning  said that Da`esh was “en train de faire table rase du passé” -- to obliterate the past.
The phrase is striking, for it appears  quite unapologetically  in the anthem l’Intérnationale:

Du passé, faisons table rase,
foule esclave -- debout, debout !

Time was, that was intended to be the international anthem of the entire world (or what was left of it).
The French revolution as well  meant to scrape French discourse clean of some of its origins, going so far as to rename the names of the the days of the week, and of the months, with decimal (Primidi, Duodi) or descriptive equivalents (Frimaire, Nivôse) -- not to suppress the pagan reminiscences of the original names (for the Révolution was down on Christianity as well), but for a clean slate (with a decimal predilection). (Today, for example, is Decadi, 20 Pluviôse, l’an CCXXIII.  Many happy returns of the day.)

For the sans-culottes as for the Bolsheviks, the slogan might have been, not “nothing new under the sun”, but “nothing old under the sun”.   ISIL is not like that.  They are, indeed, laudatores temporis acti :  they wish only to destroy the non-Islamic past.

[Update 13 March 2015]  As mentioned, anti-Christian pograms have been raging in the Muslim world for years now, with little concern or even coverage in the West.  Just at present, however, a certain amount of attention is being paid to the latest wave of Christians fleeing Syria in the face of the ISIL advance -- but principally because they are a Christian minority -- the “Assyrians” -- and thus, like the Yazidis, have a certain novelty value for the sentimentalists.    They are fleeing into Lebanon -- years late, alas, since Lebanon has long since been overstuffed with refugees.  At this point,  all that influx is likely to spark yet another Lebanese civil war;   so at least Lebanese Christians will probably welcome the Assyrians, as constituting potential recruits for the coming confessional conflicts.

[Update 16 March 2015]

Home improvements

[Update 18 March 2015]  These guys just keep coming!

Some commentators, bemused that a museum was attacked, of all things, hypothesize that the real target was the Parliament building nearby.  But that makes no sense:  Nothing was preventing the attackers from assaulting that; instead, they chose to enter the museum.  And indeed, their target may well have been, in addition to the foreign tourists, the Roman antiquities themselves.

In fact, it may be germane that these are Roman antiquities.   For reasons best known to themselves, ISIL has repeatedly cited “Rome” as among the ultimate objects of their wrath.   What motivates this surprising attitude is surely eschatology and not politics, for Italy has been more than accomodating, bending over backwards (and dropping its drawers) to welcome hundreds -- or rather thousands -- of illegal (and in some proportion criminal) fugitives from North Africa -- fishing them out of their own African territorial waters  au besoin, and ferrying them to olde Italia.   By the time ISIL arrives in Saint Peter’s Square (their express objective), they may find that much of the work of cultural destruction has already been done.


In other news … The United States, in view of the mass destruction of antiquities in Iraq, has … shipped some more antiquities to Iraq, ones which had been safely curated here.   Such is the kneejerk of the sentimentalist;  you can kiss those items goodbye.

[Update, 7 Sept 2015]  Actually, if the Salafist iconoclasts would like to do something actually useful, there are gigantic icons  in the public squares of Paris and Versailles, that were more worthy of their axe:

[Update Jan 2016]  Historical precedents:

Re the Dark Ages following 2300 B.C. (during which, “In India, civilization itself  seems to have been extinguished”), re Mesopotamia:

By no means all temples were sacked. … Most temple libraries remained intact.
-- Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942, 31964), p. 159

Hitler retaliated for the raid on Lübeck, sending German bombers against British cities with medieval town centres.  The raids were known as Baedeker raids, after the German guide books.
-- Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. II (1998), p. 438


Cf. the Humean holocaust, with which he ends his celebrated Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (1777):

If we take in hand any volume … let us ask, “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?”  No.  “Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?”  No.  Commit it then to the flames:  for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

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