In Cultural Cleansing, ISIS is Not Alone

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I watched with horror as the dust cloud rose in the air from the destruction by ISIS of the most ancient monuments of history; like Bel, the house of worship in Palmyra, Syria. This destruction happened just a week after they obliterated the 2,000 year-old holy site of Baalshamin in that ancient Syrian city. The only response to this is a heavy heart and deeply visceral disgust. We are witnessing a wholesale attack on the history of our world’s cultural evolution; a battle to force upon a naive public a falsified change to the record and course of history, simply and brutally by wiping away centuries of evidence. It is beyond and inexcusably wrong that the next generations will never see these iconic buildings, which were archaeological jewels of the Middle East. It is also inexcusably wrong that the precious relics of our mankind’s ancient history will be lost forever. Irreplaceable markers of our world’s civilizations are being systematically wiped away, shining a harsh light on what a dangerous situation Israel and our allies are facing and living in.

And one of these allies is the majority-Muslim nation of Azerbaijan. European Business Review’s recent post about finding solutions to ISIS, highlights crucial distinctions that set Azerbaijan far apart from the extremism and radical violence overrunning much of the Caucasus and Middle East.  Azerbaijan, which is secular, progressive, and tolerant of all ethnic and religious minorities, has averted radicalism and extremism, and shares decades of strong relations with the U.S. and Israel. And this positive development has happened while 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory remains under illegal military occupation by Armenia, which carried out a violent war against Azerbaijan in early 1990s. Today, those occupied regions, which were ethnically cleansed of their 800,000 indigenous Azerbaijani population, are still enduring the fallout of an aggression most notably distinguished by its brutality.

Beyond the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijan’s occupied lands, another, even more compounding cleansing was also carried out by the invaders – not only during the armed hostilities, but also during the time of ceasefire that has been in place since 1994. That extended assault was cultural cleansing, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of Azerbaijani historical monuments, cemeteries, places of worship, relics and the physical history of entire Azerbaijani villages. In 2010, Swiss journalist Andre Widmer visited the occupied regions of Azerbaijan, and described later how the Armenian invaders had destroyed many ancient monuments of Azerbaijani culture and history. Among the destroyed cities and towns, he specifically mentioned Aghdam, once 50,000-strong Azerbaijani populated city, which was leveled to the ground in the years following the occupation. Widmer writes: “Yet even today, almost 20 years after the ceasefire was signed, the occupiers continue to loot Aghdam… A city of Agdam has been reduced to the state of a spare parts depot for the victors of the war… Agdam, robbed of the pulsating life of civilization, of cultural assets and of infrastructure, has become a lonely, eerie place in no-mans-land.” (Andre Widmer, “The Forgotten Conflict: Two Decades after the Nagorno-Karabakh War,” Schellenberg Druck AG, 2013, page 75). Another journalist, renowned British expert on the Caucasus Thomas de Waal was appalled by the level of destruction carried out by Armenians in Aghdam and likened it to “small Hiroshima” (De Waal, “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War”, 10th Year Anniversary Edition, NYU Press, Jul 8, 2013, page 6).

Now, the Armenian government is heavily involved trying to somehow “find an ancient Armenian civilization” in these previously Azerbaijani-populated areas. Moreover, Armenia is diligently changing the names of all Azerbaijani towns and villages into Armenian ones trying to erase every trace of Azerbaijani presence in the occupied lands. Much the way ISIS is trying to recreate history in their shadow, so are the Armenian occupiers focused on a total replacement of the facts of history.

The cultural cleansing was such a priority of the invaders, it transcended the occupied lands of Azerbaijan. Many monuments of Azerbaijani cultural heritage and evidence of Azerbaijani life in Armenia were destroyed, artifacts belonging to a once 300,000 strong indigenous Azerbaijani population of Armenia; all expelled during the war. For instance, here is a short video (filmed by an Armenian reporter) of one of the many destroyed Azerbaijani graveyards in Armenia.

That Azerbaijan has survived, despite these inhumanities, and turned into a thriving island of progress and stability in a tough neighborhood, is a weak thread of hope for Syria and similarly vulnerable nations to rely on. The current and historical differences are vast, the outcomes impossible to compare or suggest. But the depth of impact from the ISIS-like action that took place against Azerbaijan can offer some insight into what may come after the dust has settled.

Daily, we consume existentially painful news on the destruction in Syria and other places too, and we can barely create the time or space to recognize and mourn the wreckage of humanity and heritage; there will be more news of more intensifying carnage to grab our attention tomorrow.  But ISIS and those alike are consuming life and legacy at once, marching bloodsoaked across the smashed dust of our most ancient vestiges. For either Bel in Syria, the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq or the historic town of Aghdam in Azerbaijan, these irrevocable demolitions are an invasion on the basic story of our collective existence. For the lives taken by ISIS and the history of those lives, now demolished, what will be left in that part of the world to see, experience and understand?  On an even darker note, all of this raises  the question as to how future generations will even know the difference, while ISIS and extremist groups similar to ISIS crush and destroy our most precious etiology, stamping out the evidence of history and culture like dust into the earth, and leaving in its place only the decaying remains of stolen life, to be shortly disremembered, and eventually erased in perpetuity.

About the Author
Raised in Jerusalem, New York City and Paris, Rabbi Barouk completed Smicha and Dayanas at Yeshivat Or Elchonon. Currently residing in Los Angeles, Rabbi Barouk frequently visits New York and has close family in Jerusalem and Paris.
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