2015 was a great year for talking in the world of Cultural Heritage.
The greatest cultural crisis in 70 years was received by conferences and opinion pieces which decried, despaired, and declaimed the mass destruction of tangible and intangible heritage throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Whilst these discussions progressed the past and present of humanity was homogenised and sold off, and with it strong counterpoints to the ideology of Islamic State iconoclasts.
Privately those in the cultural heritage sector begrudged these talking shops, preferring initiatives which promise action and tangible results. Soon these started to appear, ranging from high-profile high-cost operations to no-budget grass roots endeavours, offering anything from remote observation to in-situ training in heritage protection. Indeed so enthusiastic have these efforts been that there are now worries that people are duplicating the work of others, and calls have been made to corral and coordinate these programmes to maximise impact.
The recent announcement by the Department for Culture Media and Sport of £30 million to be spent over the next four years has cemented this desire to stem and reverse the flow of wanton destruction, and now genuine action is in sight, with the announcement of how this fund will be spent expected in the next few months.
If 2015 was a great year for talking 2016 looks like a good one for walking.
However, in the wide array of initiatives one corner seems largely forgotten. Although this work is undoubtedly in the territory of the cultural heritage sector, one cannot escape the fact that a large amount of assaults are the result of a concerted effort by terrorist groups to intimidate and erase global communities. These attacks form a part of terrorist messaging strategy being worked into compelling propaganda (most recently the destruction of graves in Libya), and whilst Palmyra dominates popular imagination, we must remember that the Sufi tradition in Libya and Yezidi communities in Iraq face almost complete destruction through the assertion of extreme ideology. Amongst responses to the crisis there has to be cross-over between the security sector and cultural heritage initiatives.
Expertise on the way terror groups operate will be indispensable to teams preparing to work in at-risk areas whist documentation of destruction by heritage professionals has the potential to expand our knowledge of how terror groups adapt their strategy. Furthermore there is great potential to counter terrorist narrative and build resilience to extremist ideologies using culture and heritage.
The economic value of cultural heritage through tourism vastly outweighs the looting overseen by IS - before the current crisis it was a major breadwinner for a number of MENA countries, and with the threat of attacks economies are suffering heavily. Appealing to the wallets of those in countries which are at risk of being overrun seems a good way to discredit IS's attempts to seduce the unemployed youth of North Africa, whilst the continued efforts in-situ by native Syrians and Iraqis to protect and preserve their culture demolishes assertions that a love for these things is un-Islamic. On a side-note it is interesting that the number of humanities students who have left to join IS is disproportionately low; suggesting that the ways of thinking developed in cultural studies immunize the mind against black and white assertions of ideology.
Culture and heritage are good for the heart, brain, and pocket, and if capitalised on these counter-narratives can form a mental bulwark against the spread of toxic ideologies. In this case the pen, trowel, or paintbrush is more attractive than the sword. Now it is time to unlock this potential and form strong partnerships between the worlds of culture and counter-extremism.