The tragic bottom line these days is that it is rarely news when the Islamic State blows stuff up -- including priceless antiquities that predate the rise of Islam.
This fact of life has become business as usual, to the point that many mainstream journalists no longer feel the need to include material in their reports noting why this is taking place. This is tragic and, frankly, an affront to the vast majority of the world's Muslims. This is yet another classic case of journalists needing to cover the doctrinal details of what ISIS believes -- it's take on Islamic doctrine and history -- in order to let readers understand that this is not the only or even the mainstream Islamic point of view.
Once this hard work is done, journalists can move on to another topic looming in the background: Why do Islamic State radicals destroy some parts of the region's past, while allowing others to be sold off to collectors? In other words, does ISIS hate all parts of the ancient past equally?
The latest news is that this battle as moved to Egypt, with some militants there pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. Does this have anything to do with Islam? The Washington Post simply does not want to go there:
CAIRO -- Militants with explosives battled Egyptian security forces outside the famed ancient Karnak temple in Luxor on Wednesday, injuring at least four people in an attempt to strike another blow on Egypt’s fragile tourism industry.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said two attackers were killed and a third was wounded in a foiled “terrorist attack,” which reports said injured four Egyptians but no tourists.
Egypt’s state-run MENA said the attackers tried to target a tourist bus before coming under fire from security forces, and failed to enter the heart of the temple grounds from the age of the Egyptian pharaohs.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Luxor residents said there was an increased police presence following the attack.
Finally, the Post team added some information to that generic "militants" reference.
... The incident raised fears about the growing reach of Islamist militants waging a low-level insurgency against government forces. At least one faction in Egypt has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
In 1997, Islamist militants killed more than 60 people at nearby Hatshepsut temple in Luxor after opening fire in the site’s courtyard. It was the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s history.
This reference to the 1997 attack makes it clear that this issue is larger than ISIS.
So, what is the doctrinal logic behind these attacks? What is the spark of belief that, when twisted and combined with the practical desire to cripple the tourism industry, leads to these horrible acts?
Read the rest of the story. There is, apparently, no need to help readers understand why some Muslims are taking part in these attacks, while others are not and, in fact, are suffering from this holy war against the past.
Perhaps the Post team could spare one paragraph that frames these events in non-political terms?
A few weeks ago, CNN took at look at this destructive trend and tried -- in a few words -- to point to the "why" in this story.
ISIS is part of a puritanical strain of Islam that considers all religious shrines -- Islamic, Christian, Jewish, etc. -- idolatrous.
In a commentary for CNN, Cornell University archaeologist and classicist Sturt W. Manning wrote that such destruction spoke of "the human folly and senseless violence that drives ISIS."
"The terror group is destroying the evidence of the great history of Iraq; it has to, as this history attests to a rich alternative to its barbaric nihilism. Worse, these acts of destruction supposedly in the name of religion are dishonest and hypocritical: the same ISIS also is busy looting archaeological sites to support its thriving illegal trade in antiquities, causing further incalculable harm," Manning said.
Puritanical? Perhaps the simple word "barbaric" was more historically accurate. But nevermind, at least CNN tried to give provide some motive for the attacks.
However, scroll through CNN's helpful guide to the sites being destroyed. While the lede noted the "idolatrous" label on Islamic, Christian and Jewish sites, the list fails to offer information on the losses being suffered by believers in these various religions. In fact, the CNN report doesn't seem interested in the sacred content of any of most of these ancient sites, at all. Strange.
You can see a similar trend in another recent Washington Post piece, which ran under this headline: "Islamic State isn’t just destroying ancient artifacts -- it’s selling them." Here is the top of this fascinating and very detailed (but with gaps) story:
BAGHDAD -- Islamic State militants have provoked a global outcry by attacking ancient monuments with jackhammers and bulldozers. But they also have been quietly selling off smaller antiquities from Iraq and Syria, earning millions of dollars in an increasingly organized pillaging of national treasures, according to officials and experts.
The Islamic State has defended its destruction of cultural artifacts by saying they are idolatrous and represent pre-Islamic cultures. Behind the scenes, though, the group’s looting has become so systematic that the Islamic State has incorporated the practice into the structure of its self-
declared caliphate, granting licenses for digging at historic sites through a department of “precious resources.”
The growing trade reflects how Islamic State fighters have entrenched themselves since seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul a year ago Wednesday, in a dramatic expansion of the territory they control in this country and neighboring Syria.
The Post team then links this to the recent event that captured global media attention:
The extremist group’s recent capture of Syria’s majestic 2,000-year-old ruins at Palmyra threw a spotlight on the risk that the Islamic State poses to the region’s rich cultural heritage. It is, however, just one of 4,500 sites under the group’s control, according to the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force.
Now, I know that I am biased. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am aware that this region is packed with ancient libraries, monasteries and churches, many containing sacred art and documents that are simply priceless and irreplaceable. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs dug into this, in recent hearings (click here for info).
So, in this Post report, are readers told what is happening to these Christian sites, as well as to those representing other pre-Islamic cultures and faiths? To be blunt: No.
Let's take this a step further. This story goes into great detail -- as it should -- noting that ISIS leaders are in the process of selling off many priceless artifacts. In other words, some parts of the past will be SOLD while others will be DESTROYED. Are there patterns -- doctrines even -- that determine what is lost for all time and what is merely smuggled out to be sold to the highest bidder?
So, thinking like a reporter, is there a rising black-market trade in icons, holy scrolls, altars, vestments and other parts of the Christian past? To the Islamic State, are some parts of the region's past more dangerous than others? Will the region's ancient churches have a chance to place bids to save these crucial pieces of their history, or are these artifacts simply burned, crushed, blown up, etc., without that option?
Toward the very end of the piece, there is this:
Amr al-Julaimi, a lecturer in Mosul University’s antiquities department untilit was closed by the Islamic State, said residents have informed him that the group is excavating areas around the tomb of Jonah, the prophet famed in Islam and Christianity for being swallowed by a whale. The tomb was destroyed last July by the group, which deemed it idolatrous.
“The longer until Mosul is liberated, the more the danger that our human legacy will be wiped out,” he said.
One indicator of how rapidly the illegal trade may be growing is the number of declared imports into the United States of antiquities said to be excavated long enough ago to be legal to trade.
The value of antiques and ancient artifacts from Iraq imported into the United States jumped fourfold between 2010 and 2014, reaching more than $3.5 million, according to U.S. International Trade Commission figures. Imports from Syria and Egypt have also skyrocketed.
“It’s highly suspicious,” said Danti, the Boston University professor. “These spikes in supposed legal imports perfectly correlate with the breakdown in law and order in these countries. I’d be shocked if all of it was legal.”
Read this story carefully. Do you see any sign that the Post team is even thinking about these issues?
Please let me stress: I am not saying that journalists must show extra attention to the losses being suffered by ancient churches. No, I am simply saying that -- when those losses are clearly part of a story -- they should be mentioned and the ISIS strategies explored.