Thursday, 7 December 2017

Antiquities Have Been Weaponized

US aerial attack in Syria 2014
In a readable article, Professor Michael Press highlights what some of us have been saying for quite a while ('How Antiquities Have Been Weaponized in the Struggle to Preserve Culture'). In his overview of  the reporting on Syrian antiquities over the last six years he agrees with those among the archaeology bloggers and (it must be said) the dealers' advocacy who have been pointing out a parade of errors in the media reporting of looting and heritage destruction in Syria, Iraq and other MENA areas. He emphasises that 'most, if not all, of the errors cut in the same way: to inflate the threat ISIS poses to cultural heritage while ignoring the threat posed by other armed groups'.
Since early 2014, ISIS has been presented in news reports as the greatest threat not just to human life but also to cultural heritage in Syria [...] the reality that looting of and damage to antiquities take many forms. And when we compare that reality to its portrayal in media outlets over the course of the war, we find that most reporting has ignored — or hidden — several basic facts. ISIS is not responsible for the majority of antiquities looting in Syria. By early 2013, experts were already pointing out that Assad’s forces, rebels, and jihadist groups were all involved in antiquities looting, before ISIS was in control of much territory. A study of satellite images of six select sites by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published in December 2014, showed significant looting by ISIS by this time, but also significant looting in areas controlled by other groups (though this was not emphasized by the press release or subsequent news reports). The most detailed study was published by the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (formerly the Syrian Heritage Initiative) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR CHI) in September 2015, when ISIS was close to its largest extent in Syria. The study determined that areas held by ISIS, Syrian government forces, Kurdish YPG, and other rebel groups all experienced significant looting of antiquities. More surprisingly, the study concluded that only 21.4% of the sites evaluated in ISIS-controlled territory had been looted, which was lower than percentages for YPG and Syrian opposition groups. Overwhelmingly, however, news stories have focused (and continue to focus) on ISIS looting.
Some of this has already been detailed by me on this blog and also covered by others (Professor Press mentions them in his acknowledgements), so there's no need to go over it again here, suffice to mention that it is gratifying to see the threads pulled together in one text.

He summarises the points under several headings
1. ISIS is not responsible for the majority of antiquities looting in Syria.
2. Most estimates of the amount of money ISIS has made from antiquities looting are vastly exaggerated. [I really have never understood why so much attention is given to this issue - is looting and smuggling going on? Yes. That's reason enough to stop it, no matter how many green ones somebody pockets from it].
3. Most of the objects coming out of Syria are forgeries.
4. Much if not most antiquity destruction in Syria has been conducted by groups other than ISIS.
5. Syria is only one of many countries where massive looting and damage to antiquities are happening in wartime.
6. Most threats to antiquities don’t come from war at all but from everyday activities.

Professor Press addresses the issue of the quality of the journalism in English that informs public opinion and the problems inherent in how we go about making and handling 'news':
Experts have spent years trying to inform journalists of many of the same points I have raised above. They have been largely ignored. According to one expert on antiquities trafficking who wrote on this issue in early 2016: Editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too. What explains this state of affairs? For one thing, ISIS sells. ISIS has become such a successful bogeyman — far beyond the already significant threat to human life and culture that they pose — that their mere presence in a headline means papers sold and links clicked. After so many years of emphasizing this threat, some media members may naturally assume any claim about it to be true. But why was ISIS made into a bogeyman in the first place? Here we cannot avoid the fact that it was the threat of ISIS that was used to justify Western military intervention in Syria. 
In short, the U.S. government has (he says 'appeared to have') used concern for antiquities to galvanize support for its intervention in the Syrian war. I am of the opinion there is no doubt about it.

Just as threats to the Yazidis of Sinjar were used to justify the bombing of Syria, so too was the threat ISIS posed to Syria’s cultural heritage. Before 2014, news stories about threats to Syria’s cultural heritage generally ignored ISIS (just as other aspects of their violence were ignored) — even though they were already damaging sites and destroying monuments. This suddenly changed in 2014, as media outlets then focused on ISIS (while downplaying threats posed by other groups). In addition to correct reports, some false claims of sites destroyed by ISIS were circulated. [...] News stories on antiquities looting in Syria gradually increased over 2013 and early 2014. But there appears to have been a major spike in this reporting in September 2014, the same month that the U.S. began its airstrike campaign against ISIS in Syria. Cultural heritage was enlisted in the war against ISIS. The war must be sold. In enlisting cultural heritage, governments’ use of archaeologists and other scholars is a notable feature. 
He points out the involvement of ASOR CHI, funded to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars per year from the U.S. State Department. Their purview
includes Syria, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have seen U.S. military strikes targeting ISIS since 2014. But other countries in West Asia whose heritage is also threatened have been ignored — notably Yemen, where damage to sites and monuments has been caused mostly by Saudi Arabia, a US ally. 

He mentions that noteworthy speech by Secretary of State, John Kerry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just hours before the missile campaign against members of the Islamic State began.
 Kerry used that speech, at the opening of the Met’s exhibition Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, to argue in favor of intervention in Syria. The speech is striking for its emphasis on the threat to cultural heritage over the threat to human lives. But it is also striking for repeating some of the false and misleading claims of many news outlets
Which makes one wonder about the nature of that Fake News in the US political process. Readers may recall that I suspect the Abu Sayyaf  'invoices' are forgeries and if so that would be another pointer in support of the thesis that the US government s using concerns for cultural heritage as a cover for other activities. Then Dr Press turns to that thorny issue of terrorism:
[P]olitical measures to address threats to cultural heritage are focused primarily on antiquities looting [recte looting and smuggling PMB] as a source of funding for terrorism. This is a problem for several reasons. Terrorism is a heavily loaded word, used inconsistently to refer to enemy groups of the moment, rather than according to any neutral standard (what techniques the groups use, whether they target civilians). As a result, national legislation and UN resolutions against trafficking in antiquities from Syria have focused exclusively on targeting funding for ISIS and (to a lesser extent) Al Qaeda and its affiliates. They do not address the many other groups looting and damaging cultural heritage in Syria. Blanket bans on importing antiquities from Syria would affect these other groups as well, but political solutions have avoided mentioning them or targeting them specifically. Also, since legislation is focused solely on Syria and Iraq, the broad and serious problem of antiquities being used to fund conflicts worldwide is barely addressed. And since most threats to cultural heritage lie outside armed conflict, these are ignored altogether. 
I think it is largely the Americans who have been guilty of the overuse of the T-word, and in the rest of the English-speaking world we should be on our guard to slavishly assimilate their usage into our own (and here is one useful result of a Trump presidency, focusing European attention now less on the similarities but the differences between us). I would add to what Dr Press says that also being barely addressed due to the current focus of (in his case US, but let us add international) legislation on Syria and Iraq, the broad and serious worldwide problem of illicit trade in antiquities being used not only to fund other illicit and illegal activity but to act as a focus for the creation of (and incentive/means for the maintenance of) organized criminal groups involved in the trafficking.

I think that in fact the title that Professor Press (or his editors) is inadequate. It reads 'How Antiquities Have Been Weaponized in the Struggle to Preserve Culture', when in fact what seems to be emerging from his text, if only between the lines, is that the manipulations and superficial knee-jerk arguments are not here being used by those perpetuating them 'in the Struggle to Preserve Culture', but instead in an effort to put forward completely different political aims. Bombing hell out of anyone, 'ISIL' or not, is hardly any means as far as I am concerned to 'Preserve Culture', it is sinking to barbarism. In this context, Professor Press ends with a very important point which requires thinking about and debate (not that in certain circles, archaeologists actually like debating portable antiquities heritage issues):
Those of us who work on cultural heritage must stop and ask ourselves how we want to interact with this system, one that uses cultural heritage as a weapon while ignoring most threats to it by design. Whatever we decide, we cannot be naive about our role. Nor can we be naive about the role of news media in failing to inform us all about what is happening in Syria.

Or misinforming. 

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