Guest Host: Steve Roberts

In recent months, the so-called Islamic State has accelerated the deliberate destruction of some of the world’s most important historical sites. ISIS has destroyed a 5th century Roman Catholic monastery and smashed artifacts in the Mosul Museum. This week, Islamic militants released a video showing the destruction of a 2,000-year-old temple in the ancient city of Palmyra. This came on the heels of the murder of a renowned Syrian archaeologist who refused to tell ISIS militants the location of hidden antiquities. We look at the Islamic State’s acts of cultural destruction and how the world is responding.


  • Graeme Wood Lecturer in political science, Yale University; contributing editor, Atlantic Magazine
  • Akbar Ahmed Chair of Islamic studies at American University, former Pakistani high commissioner to the U.K. his forthcoming book is titled “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire”
  • William McCants Director, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Brookings Institution; former State Department Senior Adviser for countering violent extremism; author of the forthcoming book, "The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State” (September 2015)

WATCH: "Journey Into Europe" Trailer


  • 10:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's be back in this chair tomorrow. Yesterday, Islamic State militants released a video showing the destruction of a 2,000 year old temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The UN's cultural organization calls the act a war crime.

  • 10:07:15

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio to discuss the Islamic State's destruction of antiquities, its theological basis and how it fits within their broader strategy, Akbar Ahmed of the American University is with me, William McCants of the Brookings Institution. And joining us from member state WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Graeme Wood of Yale University who has also written extensively in The Atlantic magazine about ISIS. Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us.

  • 10:07:43

    MR. AKBAR AHMEDThank you.

  • 10:07:43


  • 10:07:44

    MR. GRAEME WOODThanks.

  • 10:07:44

    ROBERTSYou can join us as well, of course, as always, at -- with our emails or calling, 800-433-8850. Email is Facebook, Twitter, we have plenty of ways in which you can join our conversation. Graeme Wood, why don't you start and talk about this latest atrocity, the destruction of the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, the significance of this act and the ruin...

  • 10:08:25

    WOODWell, first of all, it's very much of a piece with the whole project of ISIS. They are trying to replicate what they view as the original Islam in the original form of the conquests of the prophet and his companions. And one of the things that they correctly observed, that the prophet conducted, was the destruction of idols and of pagan gods upon the conquest of Mecca. And so when they roll into a place like Palmyra or a Mosul or Hatra in Iraq, one of the first things that they do is to sort of conduct a survey of what exists, what pagan idols exist and then turn them into dust.

  • 10:09:08

    WOODAnd, unfortunately, that's what we've seen in Palmyra as we've seen them to do previously in other parts of the areas that they've conquered.

  • 10:09:16

    ROBERTSAnd Akbar Ahmed, how serious is this loss from an archeological, historical, cultural...

  • 10:09:24

    AHMEDSteve, it's a great loss. I, myself, was shocked when the Taliban blew up Bamiyan, the statues in Bamiyan. I had the privilege of seeing them. Then, they went on to blow up the statues, the Buddha statues in Swat. My wife comes from there so I know how valued they are by the Swatis and how irreplaceable they are. So it is a loss in terms of archeology, in terms of our shared cultural heritage.

  • 10:09:50

    AHMEDBut I want to, Steve, with your permission, go to a point that Graeme raised talking of it as a theological exercise. I disagree with, very respectfully, but I disagree. As a Muslim scholar, I know there's a huge pushback within the Muslim world in this interpretation of Islam. This interpretation of idolatry therefore all idols must be smashed is very Abrahamic. It's coming through the Abrahamic traditions. But this is not the mainstream Islamic tradition.

  • 10:10:15

    AHMEDIf it were, the Muslim rulers who ruled in the same area for a thousand years before these statues were smashed would've smashed them much earlier. In Swat, there was an Islamic State and the statues were there.

  • 10:10:28

    ROBERTSNow, Professor Ahmed, this also -- this comes at virtually at the same time of the brutal beheading of a beloved figure in this part of the world, a man who Khalid Assad who was called Mr. Palmyra. And by the way, there's a disagreement on this pronunciation. NPR calls it Palmyra. I think you call it Palmyra. But if you disagree with the interpretation, the theological interpretation, what's your take of what's behind this brutality.

  • 10:11:05

    AHMEDThis is the big question, Steve, and we want to debate this because within the Muslim world, I see this as a dialectic. So you have a thesis, you have an anti-thesis. If IS or Taliban are doing what they're doing, which is shocking -- no Muslim accepts it. No Muslim wants it and yet it's being thrust down their throat. Remember, the Taliban blew up 150 school children in Peshawar in school.

  • 10:11:28

    AHMEDNow, don't you think that's as shocking for that society as blowing up the statues? So it's not a question of how shocking they can be. What is the purpose? To me, this is my analysis and I'm from that part of the world, these movements, like Taliban, like, the IS, performing these violent, vicious acts deliberately, these are calculated to hurt to the maximum, to inflict pain, inflict humiliation. They're crossed all red lines and they're argument is sociological.

  • 10:11:59

    AHMEDThey're saying you're killing our children. You're killing our women, therefore we are doing this. Of course, they'll put on a theological argument, a frame within which to justify what they're doing. It does not mean that Islam is permitting them. If you see the history of Islam, right from the start, these monuments survived. They've survived for 1,000 years.

  • 10:12:19

    ROBERTSWilliam McCants, let me bring you in here. In the New York Times, in reporting on not only the destruction of Palmyra, but the museum in Mosul in Iraq was largely destroyed, they say the destruction of these archeological treasures, according to the New York Times, have reached staggering levels and a point of irreversible loss. And the UN called it a war crime. Do you agree?

  • 10:12:48

    MCCANTSIt is a war crime, but it goes beyond destruction. I think we have to remember that the Islamic State is also selling off these antiquities so they're blowing up the things that can't move, but the things they can move, they are selling to brokers who are then reselling them to dealers in Turkey and then later in Europe so it's another way to raise money. Initially, the Islamic State had been giving permits to other people to excavate and sell these ruins.

  • 10:13:21

    MCCANTSMore recently, as its funding has been constrained by U.S. and the allies bombings, they have taken on a more central role in excavating artifacts and selling them. It has become a major source of income for them. The undersecretary of our U.S. treasury says it's tens of millions of dollars a month that they are gaining from this trade and it's a way to offset their losses in other areas.

  • 10:13:47

    MCCANTSSo the scope of the destruction is broad, but there is also a hidden stealing that is happening that is enriching the Islamic State's coffers.

  • 10:13:56

    ROBERTSI want to get to that whole question of the international traffic in antiquities in a minute, but Graeme Wood, there does seem to be the destruction of these antiquities, whether blowing up some of the temples or stealing other artifacts, it seems to be part of a much larger pattern of trying to obliterate the diversity of the Syrian and the larger Middle East population.

  • 10:14:24

    ROBERTSSyria, most people don't understand, a very diverse country, large Christian population, at one time a large Jewish population in Aleppo. Palmyra itself was a symbol of a -- it was a crossroads. In some ways, its great value to scholars was not that it was a pure representation of one culture, but it was a place where so many cultures crossed and mixed. Talk about that dimension, Graeme Wood, of what might behind and how the destruction of these temples relate to a larger concept, a larger strategy.

  • 10:15:00

    WOODYes. Well, every place that ISIS has rolled into, they've been very clear about what they want to do. They want to destroy aspects of the past that interfere with their interpretation of Islam and they do want to destroy the vestiges of cultures that have been there, you know, more or less unmolested for well over 1,000 years. So, you know, it's very interesting that Professor Ahmed, quite rightly, points out that they want to terrify, to infuriate and that they have political reasons for doing this.

  • 10:15:29

    WOODISIS actually would agree with that. You know, when they describe their reasons for destroying idols, the couch it in theological terms, but they also believe they have a religious obligation to terrify and infuriate people like us. So, you know, when they see the reaction that we have to the destruction of ancient temples in Palmyra or statues in Mosul or, indeed, similarly to the way the Taliban reacted with some glee to the anger that the world community felt at the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

  • 10:16:02

    WOODThey believe that they've done their job when they see that reaction.

  • 10:16:07

    ROBERTSAnd do you think also there's another dimension here, not simply to terrify or to outrage or to purify, but is there a practical dimension, too? I mean, not only have they done this, but they've gone out of their way to publicize it on social media. What's behind that, Professor Ahmed?

  • 10:16:29

    AHMEDSteve, again, we need to put this in the context of the larger movements taking place in the Muslim world in terms of the sweep of history. If you see the movements in the last two centuries as movements against Western colonization, then in the last half century, what you're seeing is an internal conflict between interpretations of Islam. So in one sense, you're seeing these very extreme larger movements interpreting Islam in their own way and their all kinds of crazy ideas that they may have, and then, you're seeing mainstream Islam pushing back against that, very often helpless because they are very often aiming at their own governments, very often incompetent, inefficient, corrupt.

  • 10:17:10

    AHMEDYou see the Middle East, you have Saddam and Assad in Syria and so on. So a lot of these movements, I don't think they're so sophisticated that they're planning this world takeover that sometimes we think...

  • 10:17:21

    ROBERTSBut a lot of people would say, you know, where is the outrage? Where is the protest of the Muslim world?

  • 10:17:24

    AHMEDNo, no. Wait a minute, Steve. I completely disagree with this. Read what's happening as the reaction against what happens by these extreme groups. Do you know when the bombing took place in Peshawar in December when 150 students were killed, all of Pakistan was outraged. You see the reaction. Just go back to your newspapers. It may not be reported here, but it happened. When these incidents take place, what it does is it unifies and creates a sense of we've got to fight back.

  • 10:17:52

    AHMEDThere's a helplessness, I agree with that. There's a helplessness because people feel, what can I do as an individual without being personally attacked? There's a danger.

  • 10:18:01

    ROBERTSWe'll be right back with your calls and your comments. That's was Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University, William McCants of the Brookings Institution, Graeme Wood of Yale and The Atlantic magazine. I'm Steve Roberts. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:02

    ROBERTSWelcome back, I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Our subject this hour, the assault by the Islamic State, ISIS, on antiquities in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University with me, also William McCants, Brookings Institution, and Graeme Wood of Yale University and The Atlantic magazine is on the line from WNPR in Harford.

  • 10:20:23

    ROBERTSWe have some lines open, so give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or give us a shot through email or Twitter or Facebook. Happy to answer your questions. William McCants, you started talking earlier about one of the motives here is looting of some of these sites. What they can't blow up, they steal. But how easy is it to trade these things on the international marketplaces? Everybody knows they're stolen.

  • 10:20:52

    MCCANTSRight, it's not easy at the moment. So what's happening is that looters, not just from the Islamic State but from other rebel groups, in order to raise money, are selling these to middlemen, usually in Turkey, brokers who are them selling them to dealers at a great discount because they're being looted from a conflict zone, and there's such international pogrom attached to it. And then the dealers are going to sit on them for a decade or two and wait until the conflict is done, everybody has moved on, their attention is elsewhere, and then they will begin to move some of the more famous items to Europe.

  • 10:21:30

    MCCANTSThey will attach false provenance to the items, and then they will make their way to more mainstream auction houses. So it's a sophisticated operation. You see the less sophisticated dealers put -- already putting these items online. You can find some of them on eBay. But a lot of the major items, we won't see them surface for years. So in the short term, the Islamic State makes the money, it can continue its enterprise. In the long term, the world loses these precious items, and we won't realize the extent of the loss for another decade or two.

  • 10:22:05

    ROBERTSNow we've also heard a number of reports from the region that in anticipation of the possible spread of ISIS and their known proclivities for looting and smashing that at least some of the more portable items have been removed from places like Palmyra for safekeeping. What do we know about that? How much has been saved? Where is it being stored? How safe is it?

  • 10:22:29

    MCCANTSI would think that the people involved with that would be very careful about telling people where they're secreting them. Khalid al-Assad, the fellow who was killed, the octogenarian in Palmyra who was killed, he was killed for keeping those secrets. A number of archaeologists in the United States and Europe and also in the region are involved in trying to safeguard these items. The challenge is that the Islamic State controls a broad swath of territory in the cradle of civilization. Many of these artifacts are not easy to move. So it gives them access to many more of them that they can loot or blow up for public theater for their own recruitment purposes.

  • 10:23:13

    ROBERTSNow Graeme Wood, you've said that the income from these sales are actually relatively small compared to the main source of financing for ISIS, which is captured oil. What's your take on this marketplace that William McCants has been talking about?

  • 10:23:31

    WOODIt certainly exists, and we don't know enough about it to be sure of how important it is for the financing of ISIS, but it's very important to understand at least that the sources of income for ISIS are diverse, and they're also local. So there's the sale of oil that continues, but there's also the extraction of taxes from local populations, the extortion of businesses, and I think even if all of the trade in antiquities were stopped, there would still be enough financing for ISIS, for them to continue to be a problem in the region.

  • 10:24:03

    ROBERTSNow Akbar Ahmed, there's an old argument here, not a new argument, about preserving antiquities in place. There has been, for many, many years, there was a period, perhaps in the 19th century primarily, early 20th century, where a lot of artifacts were removed from their home places. The most famous, perhaps the Elgin Marbles from Athens found their way to Britain. And there has been a strong feeling that these artifacts should be kept in place, they should -- some should even be returned.

  • 10:24:41

    ROBERTSAnd yet isn't there a counterargument that to return them would be to endanger them and that in the long run, some of these artifacts, despite the cultural disconnect, are safer in museums in the West?

  • 10:24:54

    AHMEDI appreciate that. Steve and I agree that there is a very strong argument. At the same time, I don't think that any nationalist government today in Africa or Asia would agree that these artifacts that belong to their nation, their history, their tradition, should in fact be sitting in London or Paris. I mean, there would be an outrage if we even suggested this to them, and I can understand that because they feel it is their heritage, their culture, they want it back. Now to agree...

  • 10:25:21

    ROBERTSBut there's no doubt that the Elgin Marbles that are in Britain are in better shape than the ones that are on the Acropolis in Athens, by far.

  • 10:25:25

    AHMEDThen again, how many Greeks to that, Steve? That's the question.

  • 10:25:29

    ROBERTSWell, they're in better shape. There's no -- that's a question of fact. Whether that should be a dispositive argument about where they should be is another question.

  • 10:25:36

    AHMEDI completely agree, but we are not talking only of logic and of reason. We are talking of emotion. We are talking of culture and tradition. You see, even this argument about IS being Islamic or not, we've just been discussing the economic factors that are motivating some of this terrible destruction in Syria that we are seeing. The Taliban in Afghanistan, Steve, were in fact harvesting opium. Now, opium by no means is something that is conducive or good for society, yet they were doing that to make money. So again it's an economic motive. They're not doing something motivated strictly by moral or theological arguments.

  • 10:26:12

    AHMEDSo similarly, these -- the sale of these artifacts and these antiquities abroad, they're not concerned. They're making money out of them or blowing them up. Their purpose is served because either they terrorize people abroad, anger them, infuriate them or show that they don't care for their own history, they're rejecting it.

  • 10:26:31

    ROBERTSAnd William McCants, how much of this is also aimed at recruiting? We're talking about it here on the Diane Rehm Show. It -- this is a -- whether it was the beheading of the beloved museum director, whether it was the visible blowing up of these treasured artifacts, it gets the attention of people. It is also part of a recruiting campaign?

  • 10:26:56

    MCCANTSThat's right. The Islamic State's recruiting tactic is to shock the world and try and attract those people who would be interested in this sort of destruction. They are part of a theological strain in Islam that is ultra-conservative, and they are appealing to other ultra-conservatives who would endorse this kind of destruction of what they consider to be idols or pagan ruins. They use this kind of propaganda in order to arouse sympathy for their cause, to demonstrate their bona fides as fellow ultra-conservatives and to show that they are establishing their version of the Islamic State.

  • 10:27:34

    MCCANTSI agree with Akbar that many Muslims are outraged by these acts. They don't share their theology or their approach to jurisprudence. But that's not to say that there aren't also many ultra-conservative Muslims who would cheer this on, and this is the audience that they're going for.

  • 10:27:48

    ROBERTSAnd isn't there a certain irony here, perhaps, that the very outrage that has triggered -- that Akbar just mentioned actually becomes part of the recruiting pitch? The angrier you make people, the more hostile you create an enemy as a demon who hates what you're doing, that's part of the recruiting pitch, right?

  • 10:28:10

    MCCANTSThat's right. It can be intoxicating, especially for teenagers who are looking for something that's countercultural and subversive. They are also -- the Islamic State is also looking to recruit people who get excited about this kind of destruction. They don't want the sort of moderate Muslims that are going to be horrified by this kind of act. They want the kind of people that would celebrate it.

  • 10:28:34

    ROBERTSGraeme, even though you're on Skype, I see you nodding at those comments. Your take on this point about recruitment and how this fits into their strategy?

  • 10:28:43

    WOODEverything Will McCants just said is correct. It can't be underestimates how important to the recruitment of IS fighters the spirit of rebellion is. You know, Will used the word counterculture, and that's very much what this is. They're rebelling against Muslim scholars, they're rebelling against their parents, and they're rebelling against fuddy-duddies like us who are worried about antiquities and, you know, old things, and they're interested in creating a kind of utopia based on their own view, on theological views, and the idea that they can suddenly be winners rather than -- you know, they're often coming from backgrounds where they don't have a whole lot of economic prospects, they don't have any hope of being leaders in their own societies, but they can decisively reject that. And when ISIS shows them videos of the destruction that they're wreaking, then they see that they've got someone who they can go to who will share that rebellious spirit.

  • 10:29:46

    ROBERTSAkbar, you want to add something?

  • 10:29:48

    AHMEDYes, Steve, I think we're leaving out an important actor in this discussion, which is the central government within which -- within the territory of which these movements are taking place, IS in the Middle East, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, et cetera. The stronger the central government, the cleaner, the more justice, the more famous, the better facilities for education, health, et cetera it can provide its citizens, you will see that these groups are marginalized, and their recruitment dwindles and dies out.

  • 10:30:18

    AHMEDThe more incompetent, the more inefficient, you'll see that these groups, I don't think they're going to take over effectively, but they will be there as a huge nuisance for some time to come, and that relationship needs to be explored, too. It's not so much the West and the Muslim world is much, much more the interaction between the central government and these groups throughout the Muslim world. You're seeing similar patterns virtually throughout the Muslim world.

  • 10:30:45

    ROBERTSOne of our listeners tweets, put ISIS in context. It didn't just emerge suddenly. Give our readers and listeners, Will McCants, a sense of the background and the origins. There's a lot of controversy over where ISIS came from. What's your best read? You study this very closely.

  • 10:31:04

    MCCANTSYeah, the Islamic State is a product of the Iraq War. I mean, the fellow who helped to found it, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founded its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. He went to Iraq because he believed the U.S. was going to invade, and he wanted to be there to take advantage of it to establish an Islamic State, and his successors did just that in 2006. But the Islamic State was always at odds with its parent organization, what we refer to as al-Qaeda Central. al-Qaeda Central wanted them to wage a hearts-and-minds campaign to try and win over popular Muslim support. The Islamic State fundamentally disagreed with that approach to insurgency and to governing. They believed that brutality would be far more effective in establishing a state than trying to win over broad public sentiment, and you can see it, that strategy, playing out in their willingness to destroy treasured cultural items like the ruins in Palmyra.

  • 10:32:03

    ROBERTSLet me read a couple more emails and tweets from some of our listeners. Carolyn writes to us, what is really frightening, and I don't see how the entire world will be able to refrain from being dragged into involvement in this conflict, is that this rollout of the ideological movement behind ISIS is so reminiscent of Nazi intolerance. The destruction of artifacts and historical treasures is a true tragedy. Do they think we will forget all but their version of history without the visual reminders?

  • 10:32:32

    ROBERTSAnd Graeme, you've talked about the parallels with Nazism. Of course there have been several movies recently in America, "Monuments Men" and "Woman in Gold," that talk about the Nazi campaign of robbing cultural history. Respond to our caller there.

  • 10:32:53

    WOODI think there's some interesting parallels between Nazism and ISIS. In the specific case, though, of the condition of antiquities and art, the Nazis were connoisseurs of this. They were not there to destroy these things and to obliterate them from the face of the Earth but to profit them, collect them and take them from the lands that they occupied. And, you know, ISIS does some of the profiting, but at least in the propaganda, they're much, much more interested in the destruction and obliteration.

  • 10:33:26

    WOODAnd, you know, in that sense, what we see in Syria and Iraq right now is from the perspective of preservation of world patrimony a much more serious event even than the second world war because of this eagerness to erase history. Do they think that they'll actually succeed in doing that? I think many of them do. I think that they really believe that with the vigorous iconoclasm that they're pursuing that eventually they'll purify their lands until, you know, until the ruins that they've obliterated are basically forgotten.

  • 10:34:05

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. But, you know, the Nazis, Graeme, also sought to preserve at least some of the artifacts as they would say, quoting them, a monument to a dead race, meaning Jewish history and culture. There was this odd, in a sense, idea, we will steal it all, but we'll preserve it in some ways as evidence of our superiority or as of our triumph. And you're saying this is a different impulse in some ways.

  • 10:34:38

    WOODYeah, I think that ISIS, you know, not just ISIS but other very specific Muslim movements through history, including the Wahhabis, had taken the destruction of idols and the obliteration of graves as -- it's one of the most popular hobbies. And so it's not something that as a matter of -- it's something as a matter of principle that they believe they have to get rid of. Keeping it around as a reminder of the civilizations that have come before is not really high on their agenda relative to actually destroying them.

  • 10:35:19

    ROBERTSAnother tweet, Will McCants, we have, says, even if it is a small piece of funding for ISIS, is it lower risk than oil and other crimes, therefore an incentive -- therefore is there a high incentive to do this?

  • 10:35:33

    MCCANTSYeah, there's a high incentive. I mean, it gets them a number of things. They get a propaganda victory. They can also hold these areas hostage, and there was a report several weeks ago that they were threatening to blow up Palmyra as a way to deter the Assad regime from coming after them in that location. So there is also a financial windfall to gain from it. There are a number of converging reasons for the Islamic State to do this, not just one.

  • 10:36:02

    ROBERTSAnd Professor Ahmed, so many of our callers are saying, why can't the civilized world stop them?

  • 10:36:11

    AHMEDWell, Steve, that's what I pointed out. The people who have to stop them are not Western governments bombing them because they've been doing that, and it's not been particularly -- it has been effective, but it hasn't really checked them. It has to be stopped by local central governments, and I go back to my point. The problem between these movements, which are largely tribal, they're set in tribal contexts, the interpretation of Islam is coming from that tribal perspective, and central governments, that is the relationship we have to study and put pressure on those central governments...

  • 10:36:41

    ROBERTSBut in a place like Iraq, the central government is weak, a country divided by tribal loyalties. In Syria, the government is under siege by a wide range of rebel groups. It's hard to see how either the central government of Iraq or Syria can be very effective.

  • 10:36:56

    AHMEDSteve, exactly my point. What the hell have we been doing there for a decade if we have not been able to create an effective army or a police force or security agencies or a civil society to check this violent outbreak that's taking place within their own societies. We poured billions of dollars, and this is the result. So unless those societies, those central governments, are propped up, we will continue to have this problem.

  • 10:37:20

    AHMEDSteve, I want to make a point here.

  • 10:37:22

    ROBERTSWell, we're going to have to take a break, and you can make the point when we come back. That's Professor Akbar Ahmed from American University, William McCants from Brookings, Graeme Wood from Yale. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. We're going to get to your phone calls and more of your emails and tweets when we come back, so stay with us.

  • 10:40:01

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour, the destruction of ancient monuments throughout the Middle East by the Islamic State. Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University with me, Will McCants of Brookings Institution. Graeme Wood is on the line with us from Hartford, Connecticut. He's at Yale University and Atlantic magazine. And Professor Ahmed, you wanted to make a point that this is not the first time this happened, there are historical examples of forces using these symbolic destructions for -- as part of psychological warfare.

  • 10:40:35

    AHMEDExactly Steve, and this is one of the great tragedies of our world civilization that we sometimes destroy these valuable monuments, mosques, churches, synagogues that belong to all of us, to our world heritage. This happened frequently in history. I want to give two examples, which will be interesting to our listeners. One is the British coming into Washington early in the 19th century and burning down the White House. Now that has no military purpose. The aim was because the White House is such a symbol of American culture, American tradition, if you like. Burning it is inflicting a kind of pain, humiliation, anger -- creating anger amongst the American population, which it did. People still remember it.

  • 10:41:18

    AHMEDSimilarly, the British, late in the 19th century, not a well-known fact, almost blew up the Taj Mahal in India. Explosives were all set. It was literally a question of pressing the button, and then the viceroy of India intervened and said no, hold on. So that would've been blown up. Why are these actions contemplated? It is precisely the kind of action that we are seeing happening in the Middle East. So I think we are too fixated on the fact that this is coming from a purely theological Islamic perspective, and this is what we need to broaden and also try to understand.

  • 10:41:52

    ROBERTSThere's a larger psych-warfare strategy at work here.

  • 10:41:54

    AHMEDAnd this is part of strategy in the Balkans. You had 1,500 mosques, and some of those are 500 years old, they were pieces of architecture, just blown up during the 1990s. And conversely, Muslims doing the same with the churches.

  • 10:42:09

    ROBERTSI want to read another email, and there's a question from one of our listeners, William McCants, about the sex trade that ISIS has been engaging in as a dimension of this warfare, this assault that they've been conducting in this part of the world.

  • 10:42:31

    MCCANTSYeah, it's sort of similar to how the Islamic State is treating antiquities. I mean, there is a propaganda value to this effort. They use it to terrify populations that they want to conquer. When they were preparing to take Sinjar, where a lot of the Yazidis lived, they were putting it around that they intended to take them as slaves as an effort to...

  • 10:42:53

    ROBERTSAnd they have.

  • 10:42:54

    MCCANTSAnd they have.

  • 10:42:55

    ROBERTSA lot of the Yazidi women have been forced into basically slavery, sex slavery.

  • 10:43:00

    MCCANTSAbsolutely. They have enslaved many of these women, giving them as slaves to their fighters in order to satisfy their lusts. They're also using it to raise money. Again, they're selling them to human traffickers to raise money in the Gulf. It's also noteworthy that women who are being recruited to the Islamic State are standing guard over the sex slaves. So they are willing participants in this brutality.

  • 10:43:30

    MCCANTSI think Akbar is absolutely right that you have to see all of this in a larger context of war crimes that have been committed by many different people. I think what makes it difficult in this instance is that they are trying to justify all of these in an Islamic context.

  • 10:43:47

    ROBERTSThat's a good transition to our callers, and Amir from Vienna, Virginia, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." We're delighted to have you this morning. And what's on your mind?

  • 10:43:58

    AMIRGood morning, thank you for having me on the conversation. I think exactly the last few comments that were said are exactly my sentiments. I think the word Islamic has been hijacked, and what Professor Ahmed said is that you have a bunch of lunatics who are using this -- using this front to create havoc, to create propaganda and to actually fund their lunacy. I mean we -- you know, I was just mentioning earlier that why don't we go after the people who are looking for these antiquities, just like the Obama administration put, you know, with the embargo with Iran, they went after the banks and all business that did business with Iran.

  • 10:44:34

    AMIRWhy don't we go after those that are looking to purchase these antiquities? Why -- I mean, it's very difficult to move statues across continents. So maybe we should be vigilant in that. And then just one last point I want to make is that, you know, when we are involved with conflicts, and we are bombing, you know, dropping, you know, 500-pound bombs in cities and in countries across the world, do we look to make sure we don't hit heritage sites and very -- areas where there's lots of history and architectural, archaeological sites in other countries? I mean, do we keep that in mind?

  • 10:45:07

    ROBERTSSeveral excellent questions, and let's try and get them in turn. Akbar Ahmed, answer the first question about hijacking Islam that Amir has mentioned.

  • 10:45:17

    AHMEDSteve, I had already made the point, and Amir is supporting that point, and I agree that you must see the debate taking place within the Muslim world. There is a very strong reaction. Hundreds of scholars and imams and the heads of states have responded very strongly to what's going on and are standing up and losing their lives, Steve. We don't realize how many Muslims are being called, what Graeme calls fuddy-duddies. They're actually in the field being killed and tortured, and their families are vulnerable because they're standing up.

  • 10:45:46

    AHMEDRemember that -- the notion of dialectics. If the Taliban shoot Malala Yousafzai, young girl from Swat, there is a Malala Yousafzai to challenge them and not bow down. So this disgusting -- their business of the slave trade, et cetera, is being challenged within the Muslim world. Young Muslim women are responding very strongly against it, and that give me hope. They're women, they're young girls, and they are in the Muslim world challenging what is taking place.

  • 10:46:14

    ROBERTSWill McCants, what about Amir's point about to what extent does the American military, which is now engaged in significant bombing, air attacks in this part of the world, are they trying to avoid antiquities? One of the stories I've read said that to some extent, ISIS is using places like Palmyra as a shield, that they will hide in these ancient monuments, knowing that the West will be reluctant to bomb them.

  • 10:46:42

    MCCANTSThat's right, in the same way that they hide in urban areas, knowing that the West is reluctant to kill a bunch of civilians, absolutely. The U.N. has banned the sale of these items from Iraq and Syria. Our own Congress has banned the sale of these items from Syria. UNESCO wants to monitor them. There are efforts afoot to try and stop this, but you have to understand, until the two conflicts stop in Syria and Iraq, this is going to keep going. It doesn't go away until there is stability.

  • 10:47:11

    ROBERTSAnd Graeme Wood, let me read you this email from Margaret. What I would like to know is why ISIS was allowed to reach, allowed to reach Palmyra in the first place. Why weren't they obliterated by drone strikes? And by the way, we have several emails and comments to this effect. They were moving through the desert to reach Palmyra, easy to spot and eliminate and without collateral damage. What made the administration refrain?

  • 10:47:35

    WOODWell, I think the fundamental problem is that drone strikes are not enough. Stopping ISIS is not an easy task. You know, there have been many forces that have been working against ISIS for a long time, and hitting them from above is simply not adequate to root them out and to stop them from taking over a town. On one point, I just wanted to point out to Professor Ahmed that when I said fuddy-duddies, I was not referring to people who are in the field fighting against ISIS but to myself and to him and to Will McCants.

  • 10:48:07

    AHMEDGraeme, I object equally strongly to being called a fuddy-duddy.

  • 10:48:13

    ROBERTSHe probably was including me, too, in that, I'm sure. Let's turn to Marty in Freidan, New Jersey. Marty, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:48:20

    MARTYGood morning, fabulous conversation. I'm longtime military, retired U.S. Army, and I served in Ramadi, which as you know is now in ISIL hands. I've been to Bamiyan in Afghanistan, and that what I'd like to point out, I've also been in South China on the Li River, where there are also Buddhist statues in alcoves, much like Bamiyan, that were attempted to be destroyed by the Red Guard.

  • 10:48:42

    AMIRAnd it's interesting to see that parallel, and I'd like to take it out of the context of just maybe Islam or a religious connotation. I would firmly suggest that sometimes it's just the actual of disillusioned, angry young men bent on destruction. I think a lot of these characters would be very comfortable in a riot in any inner city in our great nation. I think we give them too much credit sometimes, and I've seen their behavior firsthand, and to say that it's sometimes organized with a purpose might be a stretch at times.

  • 10:49:14

    ROBERTSWell thank you, that's an interesting perspective, and Akbar Ahmed, you were talking in similar terms about the larger meaning that you can see in many different cultures and many different periods in history of this kind of action.

  • 10:49:27

    AHMEDSteve, this young man, this solder, is obviously a soldier scholar. He's been traveling in the Muslim world and Central Asia. He's been to China, and he's understanding the context within which these actions take place. And I completely agree with him. We need to step back, understand what's going on. We are just too fixated on one issue, and then we go on to another. And if we are able to do that, step back and understand what's going on, we can come up with a solution.

  • 10:49:52

    AHMEDFirst of all, everything is as it were enveloped in this mist, in this uncertainty. We are not sure how ISIS originates, what are the links with the Taliban, with the other movements in Africa, West Africa, East Africa. And once we have some clarity, we can then come up with a solution how to deal with it effectively because right now it seems that these solutions are not very effective.

  • 10:50:17

    ROBERTSLet me bring in Cheryl in Catonsville, Maryland. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Cheryl.

  • 10:50:23

    CHERYLGood morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to say that I think I want to pull it back, this whole discussion, back into the larger context of genocide, which is what this is. There's sort of a cultural aspect to genocide, and then there's the actual aspect to genocide. And I think, although this is an important issue, and I've dabbled around in the arts, and I'm devastated by what's going on, I've worked in Africa, so I'm aware of the Malian situation, as well, I think that we have to put the human life front and center first, and then the strategy addressing that will hopefully encompass the environment and the areas that people live in, in sort of a broader sense of protection, one.

  • 10:51:08

    CHERYLAnd then my other point I want to make is just that these two groups, this -- ISIS is very complicated. I can't even get into it. I mean, I don't even understand exactly who they are, but I will say one thing, that is that look, the result of, you know, Bashar al-Assad, you know, started the, you know, his treatment of children, you know, putting up graffiti around Damascus is some of the genesis of ISIS, and in Iraq it's who's leftover from Saddam Hussein's -- we never came up with a strategy when those conflicts were nascent, small, and they were peaceful.

  • 10:51:43

    ROBERTSOkay, thank...

  • 10:51:45

    CHERYLSo now we're talking about bombing.

  • 10:51:47

    ROBERTSOkay, thank you Cheryl, very much for your time. Graeme Wood, we've had a number of callers express this frustration that Cheryl is clearly frustrated, that how did it get to this point.

  • 10:52:03

    WOODWell, this -- it's taken well over a decade of catastrophe in the region to bring it to this point. The fact that, as Will McCants mentioned, that the Iraq invasion went so poorly, that the occupation created chaos and really showed that we have a situation that we were not able to control or now get out of I think is the long-term story of this. And, you know, we're still -- we're still at a point where we have very little idea.

  • 10:52:35

    MCCANTSWe could certainly go in, invade the territory, but we now know that if we did that, we wouldn't know what to do next. We could certainly stop ISIS, destroy it completely. Would it be worth it? I think there's a lot of recent history that shows that it could make things somehow, if that's even possible, even worse.

  • 10:52:52

    ROBERTSAnd Will McCants, let me just do a business of here. I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. So many of our listeners are expressing this frustration. The American government has agreed to drone strikes and air support, but there is also an important political dimension here of deep reluctance to re-commit American ground troops to this part of the world. Whether they would be effective or not is another question. But that is part of the picture.

  • 10:53:24

    ROBERTSAnd the frustration a lot of people are feeling, the Obama administration has placed its hopes on kind of a coalition of local fighters, Kurdish fighters, Shiite militias, and part of the problem here is that the military strategy for degrading ISIS, as the president put it, really hasn't been terribly effective.

  • 10:53:46

    MCCANTSIt hasn't been effective in the short term. I think it's going to pay off over the long term, but you're absolutely right about the American people's reluctance to get involved in a large way in the war effort. Graeme is absolutely right that if we committed a lot of troops, we could put ISIS back in a box, but politically it's not sustainable. And even if we did it, we're not going to solve the local politics that Akbar is talking about that leads to the rise of an ISIS in the first place.

  • 10:54:11

    MCCANTSAnd if we don't let those governments work out their politics and come to some understanding with their aggrieved majorities or minorities, this kind of groups is going to keep rising over and over again, feeding on the dysfunction.

  • 10:54:24

    ROBERTSHere's another comment, another email from Katherine, again comments that have been expressed by a number of our listeners. Why is this problem the American -- a problem the Americans need to solve? Where are the countries in the Middle East, Katherine asks? Akbar?

  • 10:54:40

    AHMEDYes, Steve, that's exactly the point I'd made earlier, that it is primarily the problem of those central governments, and it is their failure that has created these movements in the first place. So they cannot continuously blame the Americans, the Americans came, because of them we have this problem, number one. Number two, Steve, we in America need to also include the suffering of those people. Over a million people in Iraq, I've read estimates of this kind, have actually died in the last decade or so. In Syria, hundreds of thousands have not only been killed, but millions have been displaced and had to take refuse in Greece and in other countries. We often forget that these are also human beings like us.

  • 10:55:20

    AHMEDIn Pakistan alone, something like 60,000 people have died since 9/11 fighting the Taliban and the TTP, et cetera, et cetera. So we need to also consider the suffering of the people of the region, who seem at this moment helpless. They're not sure how to handle this. And they need to be supported through their central governments, which need to be very strongly propped up in the endeavor to check this particular form of violence emerging from groups, again I repeat this, not only in Syria and Iraq but throughout the Muslim world.

  • 10:55:53

    ROBERTSAnd Graeme Wood, you've spent a lot of time studying this problem, and so many of our listeners continue to ask this question, not only how did it get this bad but where do we go from here. Are there any strategies that make sense to you that can start to actually accomplish what the president has argued he wants to accomplish, which is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS?

  • 10:56:19

    WOODI think the strategies we should be looking at are the strategies that are most flexible. I mean, this is a movement that has changed through time. The situations have changed. There are big things that we could do, such as a ground invasion, that I really do not think recommend themselves. But as ISIS changes its own strategy, as it moves from this kind of strategy of conquest that it's had in its central area to a strategy of kind of opportunistic expansion into the far periphery, in places like Libya, the Sinai and Nigeria, we need to start thinking of it not just as a movement that we can counter it through military means, although those might be worth looking at in certain areas, but also as a globalizing movement that is -- that has intellectual aspects to it that has cultural aspects to it and that has attractions that are beyond the ones that we can deal with through military means.

  • 10:57:22

    WOODWhen we talk about having strong central governments, you know, often those governments in this region have been predatory governments. They've been governments that have caused more difficulties than they solve, and we have to think about how to deal with that.

  • 10:57:35

    ROBERTSThat's going to have to be the last word. Graeme Wood of Yale University, Akbar Ahmed of American University, William McCants of the Brookings Institution, thank you all for being with us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm, and thanks for spending an hour of your morning with us.

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