In Defense of Libraries and Culture in the Middle East

A statement endorsed by the Progressive Librarians Guild

“Media coverage of the destruction of libraries and antiquities in northern Iraq during March 2015 has aroused the indignation of people around the world. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has initiated this destruction and used it in a propaganda campaign to promote its interests throughout the region. This destruction is based on its crude fundamentalist version of Islam, but that is not the whole story. There are also reports that ISIS is selling invaluable artifacts for profit.

Libraries with unique collections, with some items going back to 5000 BC, have reportedly been ransacked in Mosul, including the Mosul Central Library, the Mosul Museum Library, the Sunni Muslim Library, and the library of the Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers. There are reports that many of the books were burned.

Archeological sites at the ancient cities of Hatra, Nimrud, and Dur-Sharrukin have reportedly been devastated. The Mosul Museum was looted during the U.S. led military invasion in 2003, but nearby residents saved many of the artifacts at that time by hiding them in their homes. According to Bagdad Museum Director Fawzye al-Mahdi, it appears that most of the recently destroyed artifacts in the Mosul Museum were actually plaster cast replicas of originals, which were moved to Bagdad in 2003. However, according to exiled Mosul Governor Atheel Nuafi, at least two were priceless originals, including the Winged Bull, which used to stand at the gates of Nineveh in the 7th century.

Progressive librarians unconditionally condemn the destruction of libraries and culture in the Middle East.

In order to understand the current situation, we need to examine recent history. In a candid March 17th interview with Shane Smith of Vice News, President Obama stated that “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and that it is an “example of unintended consequences” (https://news.vice.com/topic/isil).

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, Iraq was a brutal dictatorship that tortured its opponents. But it was also a stable and secular middle-income country fueled by an oil-based economy. Although women were certainly not treated as equal to men, they had considerable freedom and rights not available in many other countries in the region. But of course Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, opposition to the government was not tolerated, and freedom of speech was very limited. One consequence of the authoritarian state was that radical Islamist groups had no presence in the country.

Although the U.S. generally supported Saddam Hussein from 1979 to 1990, the situation reversed after the 1990 Gulf War when Iraq attacked and annexed Kuwait. Strict U.N. economic and other sanctions led to the death of perhaps 500,000 Iraqi children by 1996, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that “we think the price was worth it” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbIX1CP9qr4).

Al-Qaeda established a presence in the country only after the chaos caused by the U.S.-led invasion. The destruction and systematic dismantling of Iraq’s government and army along with the bombing of crucial infrastructure led to the recruitment of competing ethnic militias, and massive “ethnic cleansing” of both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods and regions.

Whether boots on the ground or through drone attacks, the U.S. military is continuously making the situation worse. New extremists are created when the U.S. military kills or maims civilians or destroys their homes and livelihoods. The example of Iraq is instructive. A stable secular country without any Islamist extremists has been turned into a haven for ISIS. The destruction of libraries and culture is a direct result.

We condemn the ISIS attacks on libraries and culture, and we equally condemn U.S. wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is the people of the Middle East who can solve the problems of the Middle East. In the current situation, the most productive things the U.S. can do are to end all military operations in the region and to provide non-military aid and development assistance, including assistance in the rebuilding of libraries and other cultural resources.”

—Al Kagan for the PLG Coordinating Committee

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