The brutal murder of Syrian archaeologist Khaled Asaad – beheaded and, according to some reports, crucified at the site of ancient Palmyra to which he had devoted much of his professional life, has to give pause to any archaeologist’s train of thought. It certainly does mine.
I didn’t know Mr. Asaad, but I grieve for him, his family and colleagues, and honor his memory. Especially because, according to news reports, he was killed by “people” of the self-styled Islamic State because he refused to tell them where some of Palmyra’s archaeological treasures are hidden. I hope his colleagues show similar resolve, but escape similar fates. I hope I would be as honorable as he if I found myself in his situation.
Mr. Asaad’s murder, and the “Islamic State’s” other depredations, bring two memories bubbling up in my mind, products of my very marginal acquaintance with the Middle East.
The first: my family and I were visiting a madrassa in Cairo. I sat quietly on the courtyard pavement and watched the students – young kids in tunics and skullcaps – at their lessons. Which involved monotonic recitations from the Koran, accompanied by rhythmic bows toward Mecca. Our Egyptian hostess said that this was essentially the sum total of the madrassa’s curriculum.
The second: I was walking along a street in a toney, upscale part of Istanbul, near Taksim Square, and was startled by the shop windows. Turkey at the time was pushing for membership in the European Union, and the windows could have graced stores in any of that continent’s major cities. Americans are prudes compared to Europeans; even the most ordinary consumer product in Europe seems to be hawked by fashion models in breathtakingly pornographic poses. The same rampant sexuality was on display there in Istanbul. Even as a fairly worldly if elderly American I felt a bit put off by its in-your-face character, and I had to wonder how the grizzled, vested Turkish men and chador-clad women on the street felt about the spectacle. And I thought (this was somewhat before the Arab Spring) that this east-west dialogue (monologue?) might not end well.
These vignettes associate themselves in my mind with the murder of Mr. Asaad because I, probably like almost everyone else on this continent, wonder what on earth could make people engage in the seemingly gratuitous violence in which ISIS indulges. And I think: suppose the only education you’ve had comprises mindless memorization and recitation from the Koran – much of which, to judge from what little I’ve read in translation, deals with the Prophet’s struggles to rid the Kaaba and then all Arabia of idolaters. Believers are encouraged to do terrible things to unrepentant idolaters, and if that old man who takes care of all those pagan statues at Palmyra isn’t an idolater, what on earth is he? Yes, there’s a horrible logic to it.
So how to combat it? Facebook is awash with calls for strong action – send in the Marines, bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age. But we’ve been there, done that, and it hasn’t worked out too well. And except for their RPGs and Humvees and Twitter-savvy, the followers of ISIS are already in the Stone Age (the Neolithic, anyhow); they’d hardly notice.
Surely one should start with the madrassas. Somehow break up the pedagogical monopoly exercised by ill-educated clerics whose curricula are limited to the words of the Prophet and their choice of early Imams; give kids access to the broader world, a wider range of ideas, and maybe their blind adherence to medieval prejudice can be broken. Maybe the internet can do this; maybe we should be distributing iPads across the Arab World.
But to open minds you’ve got to open eyes, and eyes that are offended by what they understand to be visual proofs of the outside world’s depravity – like those shop windows in Istanbul – will tend to be closed. Or open only to hazard guilty glances that make the viewer feel unclean, needing to expiate his sins by, say, beheading an idolater. We need, in short, to exercise some restraint, some self-awareness, imagine ourselves in the slippers of those kids in the madrassa, and find ways to reach them.
I’m only ten years younger than Mr. Asaad, and utterly lack Middle Eastern credentials; I can't do anything about the situation and suppose I’m being presumptuous even to expound on it. But I do grieve for Mr. Asaad, and for Palmyra, and for all the other archaeologists and sites over which ISIS exercises power. And for those poor, brain-deadened madrassa kids, one of whom probably took his knife to Mr. Asaad’s throat. I wish there were SOMETHING we could do.