Guest post: A cultural resonance that echoes across continents

Originally a comment by mudpuddles on Stones.

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.


  1. says

    It is fascinating the similarity between IS and Boko Haram: they both seem to be completely nihilistic.

    I always worry when I catch myself thinking something like that, because I’m afraid that I’ve been pre-programmed by the relentless tide of government propaganda. But it really does sound like those two groups are absolutely, totally, amazing assholes.

  2. lorn says

    It is a fascinating study to note the relative ease IS has recruiting youths because the west is so very indifferent to emotional fulfillment.

    Give people a mechanism that gets them emotional fulfillment and people will work ridiculously hard in tortuous conditions for little or no material rewards to just to keep doing it. These are the keys to motivation. Keys the US social and economic system refuse to use to benefit the citizenry because deprivation is much more easily exploited for profit. Keys IS, and cult leaders, pick up and manipulate for their own ends.

    Growing up in the US, with an atomized society and for-profit denial of emotional fulfillment the norm, we live in an emotional desert where we scrape the barest of emotional sustenance up without favorable context or assistance. There may be family and a few friends but, particularly for young adults, they are as likely to be as emotionally starved as the rest and the slightest turbulence in the ever more fragile economic reality tends to shatter what few connection there are.

    Emotional needs, in a nutshell, I wish I knew the source, are quite simple to list but very complicated to arrange to be maintained:
    To know and to be known.
    To love and be loved.
    To be useful to yourself and others.
    To be connected to a higher cause or movement.

    IS exploits this emotional hunger by offering group acceptance, a connection to a higher goal, the vestiges of brotherhood, and a form of actual love. To a disconnected youth IS offers all they emotionally desire. They will offer them a context where they are needed, known, cared for, and a role in a cause. And once they get on board they are locked in through indoctrination, the stigma of crimes, and rejection by the society they left.

    For all of the inhumanity perpetrated by IS it has to be noted that they do allow for a considerable amount of creativity. In the attack on Ramadi they infiltrated people in Iraqi uniforms behind the Iraqi front line along the Euphrates river. Under attack from both front and back the front line collapsed. That is a very risky, but quite creative, tactic. They are thinking outside the box. That tactic didn’t come from a person deeply indoctrinated in a professional military culture. That is the sort of improvisation that comes from listening to amateurs, brainstorming, taking risks with unproved ideas. Whoever came up with the idea, if IS is smart about maintaining the internal culture, is something of a hero within the organization and are riding a high. They are now locked into the organization for life and will dedicate themselves to recreating that high.

    It seems clear to me that IS, as a culture, has a very high emotional intelligence and is exploiting the emotionally maladroit nature of the west as any effective sociopath would.

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