Photo of a ceiling in Hasht Behesht, Isfahan, Iran by Diego Delso (via WikiCommons).
When a certain Twitter-savvy president took to the internet threaten an attack on 52 Iranian sites in attempt to deter Tehran retaliation to the killing of general Qassim Soleimani, his ultimatum instigated uproar within the international community both on and offline. Trump’s expressions of bigotry and ignorance on social media are evidently one of the many unnerving characteristics that the public has had to put up with during his tumultuous term. The president is, as usual, behaving as a bully, and was called out for his hypocrisy in a speech made on behalf of Foreign Minister Javad Zarid to the UN Security Council last Thursday. As quick to threaten as he is to condemn, the same president that claims iron-fisted intolerance to acts of terror has now threatened to inflict them against Iranian cultural sites in the same breath – or rather, the same Twitter feed.
It seems as though the definition of terror has somehow been regionalised to reflect Western heroes fighting Eastern enemies that threaten the peace and security of our world. But terrorism is terrorism even when the perpetrator might be a white man in a white house. The irony of widespread xenophobia on the basis of terrorism, a fear that has arguably worsened whilst Trump has held power, is that the same leader who vilifies militant groups is willing to embody their militants just the same. His threats to destroy cultural heritage and the demolition of Palmyra by ISIS are painstakingly ideologically one and the same.
It’s interesting to consider why cultural heritage one of the most vulnerable targets for violence in times of conflict. There is a certain quality of these sites, monuments and objects that make them sacred even if they are not religious. They hold power in what, and whom they represent: they mark collective memories, shared histories, emotional attachments, and fundamental identities, not only of individual people but of entire cultural, ethnic and religious groups. These groups can be vast, encompassing century-spanning generations and widespread territories, and the influence of cultural heritage sites is therefore immeasurable, and protected under a unanimous 2017 UN resolution against their destruction.
Cultural heritage is powerful because it is symbolic, which makes attacking it equally suggestive. Acts of terror against heritage sites are not carried out with the intention of destroying the site in a literal sense; needless to say this would be a great shame and a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention in itself. They are acts of violence against an entire group, and the people it is comprised of, that threaten to shatter the unity and comfort that heritage can provide.
This is not just a dialogue between big men with big weapons. Threats and attacks on cultural sites can and should resonate with each and every one of us: at least, with everyone who shares in the understanding that cultural heritage is an expression of the human creativity and sentimentality of which we are all capable. Working together to preserve these sites demonstrates an understanding of this, and of the common values that exist amongst all people: beauty, togetherness, faith, craft.
Recognising this is an instrumental step, because resistance to taking up arms against culturally precious sites is only a brief departure from addressing that one simply cannot justify the protection of a nation’s treasured places while inflicting harm and danger on its largely innocent people. Here lies a moral and logical inconsistency that shakes the ground upon which the American president and so many others stand. While heritage is undoubtedly important, we cannot prioritise the art before the artists, the inanimate before the mortal. Standing against terrorism in policy and practise means admitting that violence is the least productive thing; the uproar that sounds in response to Trump’s noiseless words may be a source of hope that the international community is coming to terms with this more and more every day, and accepting that peace must be committed to on both sides of a battle in order for it to cease.