Thursday, 19 June 2014

Fincham Questions Links Between "Terrorism" and Antiquities

On the back of a recent National Geographic article largely about the research of the Glasgow "Trafficking Culture" Project (see my comments here), Derek Fincham is also sceptical 'On chasing the looting/terror connection', June 19, 2014 about the claims of the press that artefact looting "finances terrorism". He also raises the point that  the term "terrorism" tends to be used for a variety of phenomena (I'd add, in America especially). He wonders whether this loose label is due to "a number of less-rigorous researchers" being misled by a decade-old Der Spiegel article and filling the rest in by wishful thinking. He then ungraciously attacks Noah Charney as one of them. The trouble is, on reading the actual text of the study the National Geographic text was highlighting reveals that the term "terrorism" never appears in it.
"The data simply is (sic) not there to make this kind of connection, no matter how many clicks, headlines, or book sales it might generate. And making the connection is unhelpful [...] and lessens the level of intelligent discourse".
I am not aware of very much in the way of "intelligent discourse" coming from the collectors, dealers and their lobbyists, but that's by the by.

Yes, with regard to the current spate of texts on the subject, let us exercise caution (And yes let us be careful using the T-word). I think Heather Pringle took huge liberties with her material, the Glasgow team on whose research much of that article was based did not in fact mention terrorism at all in their text. Like Fincham, I think some of Matthew Bogdanos' more dramatic statements as a result of his work in Baghdad need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Derek Fincham admits: "there are far more direct links between armed conflict and the looting and destruction of sites, we should perhaps focus our energy there". Much of what is being discussed at the moment (and in the minds of some perhaps being confused with "looting funding terrorism") concerns the use of money raised from looting of sites alongside other activities to finance fighting - the prime example coming into the news in the past few days has been ISIL in Northern Syria and Iraq where there is a fair amount of evidence of antiquity looting and smuggling. Somebody in neighbouring countries is buying this stuff and paying enough to make it worth the risk. I see no reason not to blame these unscrupulous buyers for fostering this trade. Somebody is going to the trouble to dig it up, sort it, smuggle it and then hawk it around. Again, there has to be a reason for this. It is in no way wrong to try and link it with the wider events happening in the same region. It is in no way wrong to try and understand the motives for those doing the looting and the destination of the objects and the money raised by their sale. I'd like to think (as no doubt would the collectors financing it) that the money raised is going to buy mundane everyday commodities for beleaguered communities and not supporting the fighting. I suspect though that this is not what is happening, in any case whatever trade is going on, the brutal militant men with guns will ensure  by one means or another that they get their 'cut'.

Neither is it in any way wrong to press for wider investigations of these networks, and present reasons, apart from the clichéed "loss to heritage" why it may be worth doing that. What is clear is that while at least part of the "heritage lobby" focuses on the artefact-centred model of "repatriation" rather than investigating the activities of the cultural criminals in their interactions right down the line, we will always be in the realm of slightly-informed-speculation about who is involved and why.  

Until then, unlike Fincham, I do not think it helpful to dismiss the evidence and hypotheses we have merely as "correlations without meaningful connections". We cannot ignore the fact that this whole business is a clandestine and secretive one, where those engaged in it (even those who regard themselves as at its "legitimate end") have a vested interest in keeping everything out of the public eye. The evidence of anything connected with it is going to be scant and uncertain in its interpretation - what else can one expect until we have proper investigations of the whole process?

UPDATE 21.6.14:
There is now a very sober answer to Fincham by Sam Hardy: "The connection of looting and terrorism (or political violence) in cultural heritage advocacy"  who promises a further comment in "response to an antiquities collecting lobbyist’s comment on my work". No prizes for guessing whose irrelevant online snideness is going to be addressed there.

According to antiquities collector and paid antiquities collecting lobbyist Peter Tompa, ‘the archaeological lobby is cynically exploiting the rise of the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq to try to justify a further clamp down on collectors’. Apparently, I am that lobby. And apparently a wish for antiquities traders only to trade in demonstrably legal antiquities is a call for a clamp down.
(Sam Hardy, 'Is there significant evidence of paramilitary funding from the illicit antiquities trade? Yes', 21 June 2014). Basically Hardy, citing his sources, demonstrates that "Cultural Property Observer" has no grasp at all on the facts of what he claims to be "observing". Tompa and his insulting BFF metal detecting sidekicks really have nothing of any importance to say on the current face of the antiquities trade and merely want to deflect attention by their empty-headed sniping.

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