In the reactions to President Trump’s recent Twitter threat to attack 52 sites “important to Iran & the Iranian culture” — which would have been a war crime — another manifestation of civilizational supremacism was put on display: the pervasive tendency to condemn Trump by analogizing him to Muslims.
“You know who else attacks cultural sites? ISIS. The Taliban,” proclaimed journalist Mehdi Hasan in a viral tweet.
“Threatening cultural sites in Iran is to reduce Western values to those of the ISIS fanatics … invert[ing] every value system our country previously stood for,” declared Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
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The Guardian writer Steve Rose went so far as to induct Trump into an “axis of architectural evil alongside the Taliban and ISIS.”
The anti-Trump resistance regularly reaches for its Islamic dictionary to label Trump’s abuses of power. The U.S. president has been denounced as an authoritarian “caliph,” an enabler of “Christian sharia” and accused of waging “jihads” on everything from immigration to clean energy to Barack Obama.
Such formulations validate and naturalize Islamophobic interpretations that pervert the meanings of these terms by reducing them to slurs. In truth, the caliph was subject to the rule of law in Islamic legal theory, pre-colonized sharia was a pluralistic discourse not imposed by the state, and jihad simply means a “just struggle.” These Islamized insults also exceptionalize Trump as an alien phenomenon, distancing him from the very society that produced him.
Similarly, in the retorts to Trump’s anti-Iran architectural aggression, the insinuation was that he is such an aberration in “the West” that he can only be compared to the ultimate Islamist “other.” Muslims are upheld as the benchmark of barbarism, a trope long used to cast Muslim and other populations outside the bounds of international law.
While Trump may have threatened to obliterate sites of Iranian history, the responding criticisms erased large swaths of the West’s own history in which attacks on other peoples’ cultures have been anything but rare.
The first international treaties to restrict the targeting of cultural sites and other atrocities during war — the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 — were largely discarded by Europeans in their colonial campaigns outside the continent. “Colonial conflicts, glorified by the British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling as ‘savage wars of peace,’ were in reality wars conducted without rules and norms,” writes historian Fabian Klose.
Likewise, the U.S. and other powerful states blocked proposals to include a prohibition of “cultural genocide” — the destruction of a people through destruction of their culture — in the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, precisely because dismantling cultures was central to colonial projects. For example, apartheid South Africa objected that such a prohibition would pose a “latent danger” to policies concerning “primitive or backwards groups.”
In the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever” was denounced as “damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.” But in reality, both before and since 1954, the world’s chief powers have been rather partial about which cultures are worth more to humankind than others — rendering certain acts of cultural genocide tragedies, while others are relegated to invisibility.
Indeed, the purposeful destruction of a nation’s ties to its past has been an integral colonial tactic: a powerful act of psychological and epistemological warfare abetting domination, repression, displacement and extinction.
Before ISIS set fire to the library of Mosul, European conquistadors left a trail of incinerated tomes from al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) to the Americas: The annihilation of books a prelude to the annihilation or expulsion of the peoples that had written them.
Before ISIS laid waste to the ancient marvels of Syria, French colonizers pulverized the centuries-old city of Damascus in a massive bombing campaign of 1925: an orgy of violence justified by U.S. legal scholars at the time as part and parcel of subjugating “savage tribes.”
Before the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the sacred artifacts of Buddhism and other religious traditions of South Asia were pillaged by 19th- and 20th-century British imperialists — joining the hundreds of thousands of colonially procured treasures that continue to enrich European collections, in the name of “preserving” the “universal heritage of humankind.”
In practice, cultural preservation and destruction have served as two sides of the same coin: both functioning to alienate the colonized from their own social and artistic heritages. Calls to repatriate plundered goods have generally been rejected or unheeded, although some museums have generously offered to “loan” works back to the societies from which they were taken.
The commodification of the colonized world’s culture is one stream in a massive system of wealth transfer that violently expropriated hundreds of trillions of dollars’ worth of land, labor and resources from the colonies to Europeans, and that continues to extract 24 times more from the poor countries of the Global South than they receive in foreign aid — while depicting these nations as the beneficiaries of Western generosity.
Even the skulls of colonial massacre victims have been appropriated as the cultural property of museums and archives in Berlin, London and Paris, although some are now gradually being returned after many years of protest.
Far from being an ISIS-inspired betrayal or “inversion” of “Western values,” Trump’s cultural chauvinism was an expression of this value system’s foundational violence — violence that continues to crush subaltern cultures under the “Western” boot.
Trump’s threats against the treasures of Iran were prefigured by his ongoing assaults on sacred Indigenous territories within the U.S. — his opening up of the Bears Ears National Monument to oil and gas drilling, for instance, a continuation of centuries of enrichment on the ashes of Indigenous cultural and physical eradication.
Trump’s presidential forebears, including the four whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore over a sacred Lakota Sioux site, were also deeply implicated in colonial and racist policies; Theodore Roosevelt, for example, believed “the only good Indians are the dead Indians” in “nine out of every ten” cases.
Exercises of neocolonial militarism — such as Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-armed onslaught on Yemen, which has killed more than 100,000 and devastated dozens of historic monuments and sites — also continue to imperil the lives and cultures of the peoples subjected to them.
However, as archaeology professor Emily O’Dell points out, “If cultural heritage is damaged by drones or in the digging of military trenches, it is framed as collateral damage, but if it is framed as a target or victim of religious ideology, its damage is lamented in the nightly news, and it becomes a rallying cause for global consternation.”
A selective concern for preserving humanity’s cultural heritage goes hand in hand with the disposability of the humans living in the lands where “our” heritage is located.
In contrast to the widespread outcry in the U.S. when Trump put Iran’s “biblical wonders” in the crosshairs, there has been broad bipartisan support for the suffocating sanctions that have systematically immiserated the Iranian people — depriving them of food, life-saving medicines and even aircraft replacement parts linked to multiple fatal plane crashes in 2018 and 2019. Never mind that such an “unjust and harmful” exercise in “collective punishment,” to quote the UN special rapporteur on sanctions, may also amount to a serious violation of international law.
The will to believe that Muslim fundamentalists are the paradigmatic destroyers, desecrators and despots reveals more about Western denialism than supposed Muslim barbarism. As anthropology professor Ivan Kalmar argues in his book Early Orientalism, “The persistent picture in the Christian West of Muslims as slaves, soldiers, and terrorists of Allah” is the product of “an anxious projection onto the Orient of fears that one has about power in the West itself.”
The prevalence of such projections across the political spectrum is a sign of their deep roots — embedded in the same thoroughly Western soil that germinated the so-called “caliph Donald Trump” himself.