US State Department / Flickr

In war against ISIL, a fine line between facts and artifacts

How John Kerry used the Met’s new exhibition to argue for airstrikes in Syria

October 22, 2014 2:00AM ET

On Sept. 22, a few hours before U.S. airstrikes began against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was the opening of an exhibition of Middle Eastern treasures dating back to the early Iron Age, when the Assyrian empire had spread from the banks of the Tigris to become the region’s superpower and Phoenician sailors were hawking commodities like tin and cedar all over the Mediterranean.

Now softly lit in glass cases, the figures of kings, goddesses, lions, sphinxes, griffins, sirens and something listed as a “scorpion bird man” were sculpted long before Jesus or Muhammad came onto the scene. Many of the relics function as reminders that the old conceptual dividing line between East and West didn’t always exist. A piece of Philistine pottery that borrows from Greek, Egyptian and Canaanite traditions shows the creative cross-pollination of the time, and pieces of Babylonian and Phoenician history are explained with references to Bible stories and Homeric verse.  

Against this backdrop, Kerry voiced a lament that quickly became a battle cry. “We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.”

He told the story of the Tomb of Jonah, the pilgrimage site in Mosul significant to Christians, Jews and Muslims that dates back to the eighth century B.C. In July, ISIL fighters ringed the tomb with explosives and blew it up. The loss may appear trivial when compared with the violations the group perpetrate against the living, but as Kerry rightly pointed out, it’s still a tragic, irrecoverable loss.

He then argued that this destruction demanded action, repeating the same basic idea over and over: “How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing”; “the civilized world must take a stand”; “if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit”; “those who deny the evidence or choose excuses over action are playing with fire”; “we believe it is imperative that we act now.” Later that night, the military campaign that has now been dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve expanded into Syria with the help of with Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar but without formal congressional approval.

Pretty persuasion

It was the week of the U.N. General Assembly, and the appearance was a pit stop on a frenzied diplomatic schedule. Kerry talked at more length about the strikes on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that day and at the Global Counterterrorism Forum in New York the following day. What was interesting about this speech was the setting.

After all, it was at the Met, back in 1946, that an exhibition of American art bought by the State Department’s newly formed Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs was launched. The art traveled to South America, Paris and Prague, with the intention of helping define America’s international brand, but the scheme backfired when it was revealed that three of the chosen artists were communists, and the collection was sold off at a loss.

This was part of a wider project of cultural diplomacy throughout the Cold War that involved jazz musicians going on government-sponsored tours of the Soviet Union and the Central Intelligence Agency’s covertly funding left-wing literary journals such as Encounter, which counted among its contributors Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and Aldous Huxley. Today the State Department sends hip-hop artist-educators to Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe in order to promote American values, but the program is nowhere near as high profile as it was in the 1950s or ’60s, and some of the musicians involved, such as Abdul-Malik Ahmad of the group Native Deen, have expressed concerns that the initiative paints them as puppets of the state.

Not only did the US fail to protect heritage sites in Iraq, but also, because of oversight and poor planning, the Army added to the havoc.

Culture is more often used as a tool of political persuasion when it’s aimed at foreign audiences than domestic ones, but either way, it often tells a messier story than the one it was intended to stand for, and Kerry’s performance at the Met was no exception.

When a clip of Kerry’s speech was played by the curator Rijin Sahakian at a conference on Arab art in New York the following week, there were cynical murmurs in the crowd. No one denied the horror of ISIL’s acts or the Syrian people’s need for support as they face this latest threat to their survival, but Sahakian found plenty of omissions and elisions in Kerry’s version of events.

His speech was a version of the same foreign policy narrative that President Barack Obama has been telling, in which ISIL’s atrocities are stripped of context. Kerry referred to these crimes as “ugly, savage, inexplicable, valueless barbarism” and not the most virulent symptom thus far of two countries that have fallen apart in a mess of poverty, infrastructure failure, corruption and opportunistic power grabs.

Bashar Al-Assad, of course, looms large in this picture, but Kerry sandwiched in only one mention of the Syrian president, in relation to his regime’s shelling of an ancient Roman temple, into a catalog of ISIL’s destruction. Assad’s many other, graver crimes don’t fit with the message being shaped, about the urgent need to stop a monstrous terrorist force, which threatens Americans at home as well as the entire Middle East.

The most glaring omission of all, as Sahakian argued cogently in her talk, was the looting and destruction of Iraqi cultural and archaeological sites that has been persistent and devastating ever since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Not only did the U.S. fail to protect the sites, but also, because of oversight and poor planning, the Army added to the havoc. From 2003 to 2005, an ancient Babylonian temple was turned into a 150-hectare military base called Camp Alpha by coalition forces, who shoved earth full of ancient pottery into sandbags that were piled up around the base.

The Senate Appropriations Committee promised funding to restore the site in 2005, and Kerry announced at the Met that the U.S. will support efforts to track the destruction of historical sites in Syria and to train conservation experts in Iraq. He made no mention, however, of his country’s part in the destruction of a rich culture that has been exploited and damaged on multiple occasions over the past decade.

Kerry kept his speech simple, but the exhibition behind him had more complicated things to say. One of the most striking images in the Met show is an ivory carving of a lioness from the eighth or ninth century B.C. She’s pinning a young man to the ground, with her jaws at his throat and one paw around his neck, and he’s leaning back on his hands, his torso angled toward hers and their legs intertwined. An almost identical companion piece, the placard says, was looted from Baghdad’s Iraq Museum in 2003, the year that Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Like any good art, it’s unsettling, hard to forget and open to interpretation.

Cast in a certain light, it can stand for the U.S. commitment to preserving global culture, but look at it a different way, and it tells a different story. 

Jessica Holland is a freelance multimedia journalist interested in culture and innovation in the Middle East. A selection of her work can be found at jessholland.co.uk.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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