The Islamic State terror group has been busy in Syria and Iraq in recent months. It hasn’t just been conquering villages, beheading people, persecuting minorities, executing journalists/aid workers/pilots alike and forcing conversion on entire communities. In line with its first aim of destroying cultural and religious diversity in the Middle East it has also been destroying history, sculpture by sculpture, piece by piece. Following destruction they can set about rewriting.
They’re hardly the first to have done so. From 1979 onwards, Iran built its Islamic Republic on the ruins of Iran’s pre-Islamic and pre-revolutionary history; the Taliban famously did likewise by destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas.
In the past two months, ISIS too has drawn widespread condemnation for wrecking sites and destroying artefacts in the Mosul museum. But the Islamic Republic’s similar approach to such reminders and remainders of history has been all but forgotten; until this week, when an analysis by Parvaneh Masoumi on Iran Wire highlighted the similarities in the penchants of the two Islamic “states” – one Shia and one Sunni – for erasing and rewriting (even rewinding) history.
As an example, Masoumi cited post-1979 Iran’s legendary “hangman,” Sadegh Khalkalli, who – in addition to sentencing thousands to death – “is remembered for his destruction of a large number of artefacts and monuments from Iran’s long history.”
And it wasn’t just statues of the Shah and his father which were torn down and crushed one by one (including the Pahlavi tomb, viewed as a “Satanic edifice”): Khalkalli also set his sights on Iran’s more antique heritage – namely, Cyrus the Great, now dismissed as an bloodthirsty, Jewish, homosexual “imposter.” Khalkalli almost had Revolutionary Guards destroy ancient Persepolis before they were stopped by the incensed residents and clerics of Fras province, where the city’s ruins lie.
But the “urge to destroy history” evidently remained; vestiges of Iranian history and culture, from depictions of Ferdowsi to the grand ruins of Persepolis, are still contested by hardliners in Iran today, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who sometimes co-opts them as sources of national pride). If Masoumi is correct in her estimation, some of the revolutionary leaders of the past wished they had finished the job. Besides radicalism, and global aspirations, ISIS and Iran also share the drive to erase and rewrite.