On June 29 2014 – nearly three years ago to the day – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the pulpit at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul in northern Iraq. He announced the creation of a new Islamic State that stretched across the borders of Iraq and Syria. Declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of all Muslims, he implored the faithful from across the world to make the pilgrimage to come and serve.
Yesterday, in the midst of what are likely to be the final stages in the Battle for Mosul, the Islamic State appears to have destroyed the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri and its iconic leaning minaret.
As the Iraqi poet Ahmed Zaidan has said, the Great Mosque was not only a significant cultural heritage site for Muslims in general, but it was also regarded as an essential part of the Mosul skyline - a symbol of the city’s long past and diverse communities. The building itself was erected in 1172 by the great Nur Al-Din ibn Zengi (1118-1174), widely regarded as the man who launched the first successful holy war against Western crusaders.
Although there are conflicting reports about who destroyed the mosque – the IS blames American airstrikes – the available footage online suggests the site was bombed with explosives from the inside. Such destruction certainly fits with their pattern of the Islamic State’s aggressive destruction of religious imagery, as we have described recently.
It would be cynical and unwise to dismiss the destruction of the Great Mosque as a last desperate effort by the IS, a fit of rage in the face of imminent defeat. From their inception, the IS have been engaged as much in a symbolic war as they have a military one. And as their capacity to hold and defend territory shrinks, this war becomes key to expressing their power and ideology and imploring their adherents to continue the fight.
An attack on heritage, an attack on Mosul
The IS has been involved in the deliberate destruction of sites that are held most dear by local populations. A key reason for this is to discourage the millions of refugees and displaced from returning and re-building their fragile and cosmopolitan communities.
As our ongoing research, which includes interviews with displaced Iraqis from Mosul, is starting to reveal, many Yezidi and Christians have claimed that they will not go back to their traditional homelands. This is in no small part because their sacred sites – their spiritual connection to the place and their heritage – have been so systematically ruptured by the IS’s destruction.
The Great Mosque of Mosul is no different. The people of Mosul – and more broadly of Iraq – were extremely proud of the mosque and its leaning minaret, which appears on the 10,000 Iraqi dinar banknote. They will lament the destruction of the mosque in much the same way that they continue to mourn the countless archaeological sites and churches that the IS has destroyed.
Another key reason to destroy the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri is that it has already yielded them news attention from across the world. By destroying the mosque, the IS are drawing attention to the fact that many in the West might care more about the destruction of a mosque than the horrific human tragedies unfolding every day in Iraq. Such an attack is therefore also an attack on the “Western” ideology that values the preservation of heritage such as the mosque.
Finally, when Mosul is eventually re-taken from the IS it will be the product of a long and complex battle by a combination of Shia, Kurds and what the IS sees as crusaders (Westerners). It would be a disastrous symbol of defeat for the IS if such forces were to take the pulpit in the Grand Mosque and declare victory over the Caliphate. To destroy the mosque is to deprive their enemies of this opportunity.
The destruction of heritage is always deplorable, and forces us to ask how we value the past and what we can learn from it. However, heritage is also about the future - it is a fundamental part of the recovery of societies which have been affected by war and conflict; it is the glue that holds together such fragile and diverse communities.
The destruction of the Great Mosque is not only an attack on the social fabric of Mosul, it is also a deeper attack on the Iraqi people; a symbol of the many challenges that lie ahead as they try to re-build a peaceful and positive future after the horrors of the Islamic State.