This week, the Department of Justice reached an agreement with Hobby Lobby to confiscate thousands of ancient artifacts from the Middle East that the company acquired over the past few years. The DOJ is charged with enforcing federal laws, and their actions here were entirely correct, as far as that goes, but in light of the destruction visited upon ancient treasures by iconoclastic jihadists in the past few decades, it may be time to rethink those laws.
Western governments ought to consider whether the Middle East is the best place for irreplaceable antiquities when leaving them there keeps them in the firing line of the next version of the Taliban or al-Qaeda to sweep those countries. Given jihadists’ tendency to burn, smash, or dynamite anything that doesn’t comport with their narrow view of Islam, most artifacts are almost certainly safer in the Smithsonian or the British Museum than they are in Baghdad or Mosul. Western nations should change their laws to encourage this trade, not block it.
It Belongs In A Museum!
The destruction of human life has been by far the worst effect of the jihad that has scourged the Middle East and North Africa in the decades since the end of the Cold War, but that conflict has also taken its toll on ancient art and architecture. The phenomenon is sufficiently widespread as to render the current policy of keeping artifacts in their countries of origin suspect at best.
The policy, which has been in effect throughout much of the world since a 1970 United Nations convention on the subject, was made for a time when these governments intended to keep and study artifacts from their history and were capable of doing so. Recent events have shown how much the world has changed since then.
The most famous incident of jihadist havoc is the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. The massive statues in Afghanistan dated to the sixth or seventh century and had survived the countless wars that benighted region has known. The Taliban viewed them as idolatrous, and incompatible with their vicious vision of Islam. In March 2001, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar was still fairly unknown in the West, but the planned destruction of the famous works still merited notice in The New York Times.
“These idols have been gods of the infidels,” Omar says in a Times article, and that was justification enough for the puritanical Islamic sect to destroy them. Clearly the massive statues built into the side of a cliff could not have been moved to safety in a more tolerant country, but even efforts to preserve them in situ were unsuccessful. In fact, one Taliban official told the Times that a Western attempt to save the Buddhas had actually convinced the Taliban to destroy them. As Barbara Crossette reported:
With outrage still fresh around the world over the destruction of two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, a Taliban envoy says the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works while a million Afghans faced starvation.
‘When your children are dying in front of you, then you don’t care about a piece of art,’ Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, the envoy, said in an interview on Friday.
A Pattern of Destruction
That was far from the only incident of jihad-inspired mayhem. In 2012, as al-Qaeda’s North African franchise closed in on Timbuktu, the world braced itself for more historical destruction. The ancient Malian city is home to many treasures, not least of which is a library full of centuries-old works found no place else in the world. Although most of these artifacts were Islamic in nature, a spokesman for the group told reporters they planned to “destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception.”
The library was also targeted. Although French troops intervened to help the Malian government retake the city, they could not arrive in time to prevent some of the books from being burned. A Guardian article from 2013 describes the lost treasures:
The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.
The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.
Most of the works were not digitized, and their content is now lost forever. Unlike the Bamiyan Buddhas, these works could have been removed to be studied and digitally imaged in safer environs. Leaving them in Mali was culturally sensitive, but ultimately counterproductive.
Buildings and artifacts are being destroyed around the Muslim world. Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post chronicled even more of them in 2014. In Libya, Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt, and more, radical Islamists destroy everything that does not fit into their extremist schemes, and local governments are powerless to prevent it.
Antiquities Are Safer in the West
At one time, such acts were not unknown in the West, either, but since the downfall of the Nazi regime in Germany, Europe has been a safe place for art and culture. There are no more bonfires of the vanities in Florence. In America, there never were any such episodes, nor is there any threat of them now (except perhaps isolated takedowns of Civil War monuments). An artifact from an ancient religion or culture would be a treasured piece in a Western university or museum, the subject of study and preservation. In the Middle East, it is only as safe as the country protecting it, which recent events have shown is quite fragile indeed.
Hobby Lobby’s efforts to preserve ancient artifacts are connected with their soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. There, as CNN reports, 40,000 items will be housed safely and displayed to the public. Housing antiquities there or at a similar museum is the best way to keep them out of the hands of jihadist pyromaniacs.
The world has changed since the 1970 UN convention on cultural property, and our laws ought to change with it. Keeping endangered artifacts in their countries of origin is well-intentioned, but in much of the world it is no longer tenable. Bringing those books, artworks, and cultural items to safety in the West may be the only way to preserve these parts of humanity’s heritage from the senseless fire of Islamic radicals.