Sites and symbols of heritage and history are vitally important to the sense of place and identity of any given population. Apart from the aesthetic and visually symbolic totems of “I am in X place right now”, these ruins represent a common heritage and a history – of growth, of community, of development, of art, of learning, of spirituality, of trade and internationalism, of war and struggle, and of peace and prosperity – which people of many nationalities, religions and ethnicities can claim ownership of. These sites represent elements of a shared identity, and have a cultural resonance and relevance that echoes across continents. These psychological and cultural connections between people and place are absolutely fundamental to how people view their place in the world, and how they define themselves. They say “This is where I am from. Not just this place, but this history, this culture, this dimension of humanity.” That is why IS wants to wipe these sites out.
They want to erase any vestige of a prior identity for the places and populations they want to conquer. They want to make it impossible for people who flee the IS advance to return to a psychological and cultural space they knew as home. IS has no true history, no heritage, no learning, no community, no art, no true culture to offer, and that’s how it wants the rest of the world to be. Wiping out someone’s heritage is a key part of robbing them of their identity. It makes people easier to demoralise, alienate and assimilate. It also removes symbols of shared heritage that might serve to bind communities together in resistance. We have already heard tales of some people deciding to join IS because after they lost their homes and neighbours and businesses and felt trapped…. “there is nothing left for me, so I decided why not join IS now, there is nothing else.” Removing potent symbols of sense of place and belonging helps them intensify that impact.
The concern is not simply about stones in a desert. Its about a direct and twisted assault on the psyche of civilians that will have an irreversible and damaging impact, and that will make fundamentalism easier to embed.