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What the Looting of the Iraqi National Museum Tells Us About Iraqi Society

Who's to blame for the destruction of Iraqi museums, libraries and archives, amounting to what the New York Times calls "one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history"?

The Bush administration, say academic specialists on the Middle East. They proceed to compare American leaders to some of the worst mass-murderers in history.

  • Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University: U.S. political leaders are "destroyers of civilization" like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.
  • Michael Sells of Haverford College: They are "barbarians" whose "criminal neglect" makes them comparable to Nero.
  • Said Arjomand of the State University of New York (Stony Brook): The U.S. government's "war crime" renders it akin to the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in 1258.

These academics overlook one tiny detail, however: It was Iraqis who looted and burned, and they did so against the coalition's wishes. Blaming Americans for Iraqi crimes is deeply patronizing, equating Iraqis with children not responsible for their actions.

The academics also overlook another fact: the extreme rarity of such cultural self-destruction.

The French did not sack the Louvre in 1944. The Japanese did not burn their national library a year later. Panamanians did not destroy their archives in 1990. Kuwaitis did not destroy their historic Korans in 1991. Yes, looting took place in all these cases, but nothing approached what the Associated Press calls Iraq's "unchecked frenzy of cultural theft."

And a frenzy it was. At the National Museum of Iraq, perhaps the greatest storehouse of antiquities in the Middle East, "the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness had been completely ransacked," reported one eyewitness.

The devastation at Iraq's national library and archives was worse, for both institutions were purposefully incinerated. Much of the country's culture and records was destroyed; "nothing was left in the national library's main wing but its charred walls and ceilings and mounds of ash." The smoldering shell contained the charred remnants of historic books "and a nation's intellectual legacy gone up in smoke." Iraq's main Islamic library, with its collection of "rare early legal and literary materials, priceless Korans, calligraphy and illumination" was also burned.

This descent into barbarism is so unusual, it has only a single precedent - Iraqi actions in '90-'91.

  • In Kuwait: When Kuwait was an Iraqi province, Iraqi troops plundered the national museum, set fire to the planetarium, ransacked libraries and otherwise crippled the cultural infrastructure.
  • In Iraq: During the instability that followed Iraq's loss, anti-government elements engaged in a looting rampage, pillaging regional museums and other cultural institutions, stealing some 4,000 items. Archaeologists published a catalogue, "Lost Heritage: Antiquities Stolen from Iraq's Regional Museums," to prevent trade in these artifacts.

How to explain this possibly unique Iraqi penchant for cultural self-hatred? The inherently violent quality of modern Iraqi society is one cause.

Writing in 1968, the Israeli scholar Uriel Dann explained that a climate of violence is "part of the political scene in Iraq . . . . It is an undercurrent which pervades the vast substrata of the people outside the sphere of power politics. Hundreds of thousands of souls can easily be mobilized on the flimsiest pretext. They constitute a permanently restive element, ready to break into riots."

The Kuwaiti scholar Shafiq N. Ghabra expanded on this theme in 2001 in the Middle East Quarterly. Noting Iraq's uneasy mix of Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, urbanites and tribal members, plus other divisions, he noted how unmanageable governments found this diversity, which led them to create "a state devoid of political compromise." Leaders "liquidated those holding opposing views, confiscated property without notice, trumped up charges against its enemies and fought battles with imaginary domestic foes."

The empty shell of the national library testifies mutely to the excesses of a country singularly prone to violence against itself.

The blame for the looting in Iraq, therefore, lies not with the coalition forces but with the Iraqis themselves. Yes, the coalition should have prepared better, but Iraqis alone bear moral responsibility for the cultural wreckage.

This conclusion has two implications. Middle East specialists have yet again confirmed their political obtuseness. And Iraqis have signaled that they will act in ways highly unwelcome to the coalition.