Essential Dilemma in the Liberal Understanding of Heritage: On recent looting and destruction of Museums in Iraq and its reactions*

                                Who controls the past controls the present

Who controls the present controls the future

[Memory War, a song by Asian Dub Foundation (ADF)]

On May 7, 2003 a new bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives on its 108thcongress. The short title of the bill is ‘Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act’. This is a very interesting move by the United States’ legislature that almost unanimously approved the preemptive aggression in Iraq. The bill with several sections starts with a differentiation of the Iraqi objects of ‘heritage’ in two distinct categories: cultural material of Iraq and archaeological material of Iraq. With detail definition of these two categories, this bill aims to prohibit the importation of any object that falls in these categories to US. ‘Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act’ is supposed to be amended by this act also.[3] This bill has been welcomed by many.[4] This act at least suggests that US acknowledge the heritage of its new colony– Iraq! Earlier, president Bush commented that the looting and destruction of Museums of Bagdad, Basra and Mosul are the expression of freedom, suppressed and coerced for a long, long time. According to his vocabulary this act of destruction is quite normal by a people who has been captive of a despotic regime for over two decades[5]. I think comments of Mr. Bush and of many others in reaction to the same events of looting and destruction during the imperialist attack on Iraq can be an interesting problem-space for formulating very important questions. As we have read, heard and seen in the mainstream media, Western archaeologists, historians, orientalists, scholars and pundits were expressing their grave concerns over the condition of the remains of Mesopotamian civilization during the aggression (or humanitarian war, according to many of them) before the shock and awe begun. Pundits from different famous Western institutions like Cambridge University, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of University of London appealed to the US government for taking care of the heritage of Mesopotamian Civilization. Society for American Archaeology (SAA) wrote a letter to President Bush with the same urge.[6] It was reported that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured them about the US concern over the issues of valuable archaeological and historical remains that are the cultural property of global human race and civilization. But the events did take place. After the looting, destruction and smuggling of archaeological materials from the Museums in Iraq, a storm of condemnation broke out in both Western and non-Western parts of the world. A few condemned the Iraqis, and according to most of the pundits the responsibility was of the US-British government and forces for letting the destruction of ‘civilization’ done in a preplanned way. On behalf of World Archaeological Congress (WAC), organization’s president Prof. Martin Hall issued a statement where he has expressed alarm over the ‘unfolding situation in Iraq where, alongside the increasingly distressing humanitarian situation there appears to be a significant increase in damage to and looting of archaeological museums’. He noted with ‘particular concern given the huge importance of the collections held there for all humanity’. At the same time he assured that WAC endorses the role of UN and UNESCO. More, interestingly and very much ironically Prof. Hall urged the “coalition forces” (note, not occupation forces) ‘to take a far more proactive stance in the protection of cultural heritage than it appears has happened so far’ and ‘to identify, liaise with, and support key Iraqi individuals within the Ministry of Culture and Department of Antiquities’.[7]  In the face of enormous repercussion, it was reported earlier that US administration has made a declaration to restore the damage done to the ‘world civilization’ by sending a team of specialists to investigate into the incidents. It has also been reported that US officials have asserted that they will try the ‘uncivilized’, ‘barbaric’ culprits under the law of both United States and Iraq. Some of the US officials had gone further by pleading to the antic collectors for not buying the stolen properties. After a week or more, US military administration also decided to guard the museums and libraries. Quite interestingly, three high officials of US administration had resigned in protest of negligence and failure in taking precautionary measures. British officials felt the urge to explain their position in a news conference. There they put and presented their agendas in almost the same ways. UNESCO, the transnational institution for preserving and nourishing ‘world heritage’, had organized an urgent meeting with specialists from all over the world in Paris to negotiate the great damage. It made an official declaration in which there was a hint of possibility to employ ‘heritage police’ in Iraq.[8] In Bangladesh also, there has been a flurry of reporting-commentaries-analyses in reaction that more or less puts the responsibility upon the shoulders of ‘imperialist’ US and its allies.[9] Given the significance of building a ‘problem-space’[10] to formulate my criticism in the following sections, I would like to mention that all these reactions, be they subdued or outrageous or both at the same time, articulate within a conceptual domain of heritage of Mesopotamian civilization. Modern nation-state of Iraq with its territoriality, in spite of the fact that this territoriality was fixed and redrawn by the British colonial regime, is only represented through this heritage. Therefore, in this discourse of reactions Iraq becomes a discursive space where past becomes the only possible mode of articulation with its present; as if there is nothing outside the time that is defined, bounded and fixed by modern power as past.

In the paragraph above I have tried to summarize a few key attitudes of reaction before and after the destruction of Museums in Iraq. To be frank, some of these reactions seem quite farcical to me. I have used and will use Italics and quotation marks for some word(s). This is because I would like to identify and locate these word(s) as concepts to be problematized as problem-space in the sections to come. Dear readers, please, read the first paragraph very carefully and you will find out parties, the actors and the reactors, are sharing some common grounds and conceptual-ideological domains among their rhetoric-images-representations, desires- aspirations-signification. I am calling this the language of ‘liberal understanding of heritage’. Let me elaborate the term to some extent.


In the most powerful discussions and debates of our time liberalism is taken for granted, as an unbounded, unquestionable, normal, self-evident, universal discourse of human salvation and progress. In this paper, I am going to question this assumed self-evident normalcy of liberalism with reference to the events before and after the destruction and looting of Iraqi museums. In recent times, many thinkers have castigated liberalism as an embodiment of the essences that have been intrinsically associated with colonial and imperial modernizing projects[11]. They have deconstructed a narrative in which it has been shown that liberalism and the categories essential to it (i.e. human race and humanity, autonomous agency, self-constituted sujectivity, modern nation-state and law, secularism, private property, democracy and freedom, etc.) acted in justifying and consolidating the colonial occupation, oppression and forceful transformation of non-Western lives, cultures and histories. It acted, moreover, in constructing the colonized cultures as degraded and in validating and legalizing their destruction in the name of modernization. Simultaneously, liberalism and the institutions and disciplinary practices articulated within it invoked and constructed the past through selective appropriation and amalgamated that with their present desires and motivations to gain, to consolidate and to continue domination and authority. During the last three decades, due to very significant transformations in local/global articulation of power and capital, liberalism and its ideals have been reshaped and redefined as neoliberalism. Yet, most of the core assumptions and constructs of liberalism in the age of colonialism, soviet imperialism and anti-colonial nationalism have been appropriated within the present discursive domain of neoliberalism. I want to claim that ‘past’ as a discursive space has been located by and appropriated into liberalism and neoliberalism with the same common core constructs. It is these constructions and representations of past by dominating liberal ideals that are known to and identified by us as ‘heritage’. Thus according to this elucidation, I want to argue that heritage is not ‘normal’ and ‘self-evident’ and its ideals are not universal and apolitical as it is assumed. Rather ‘heritage’ is the selective constructions and representations of the past by dominating powers and power structures and their relations to the others in the modern conditions of inequality. The knowledge produced through the formation and institutionalization of the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, history, museum studies, national and international legal studies for protecting the heritage, have contributed profoundly in the consolidation and normalization of liberal constructions of past and in other sense, of liberalism itself.

I would like to point out that the protestors against the looting and destruction of Iraqi museums are,

First, building their arguments under a grand narrative of civilization where it has been assumed that ‘civilization’ has a universal, self-constituted, self-evident and normal existence. It seems from their argument that the remains of Mesopotamian civilization and the Museums must be considered as space-time-value neutral for knowing and protecting the heritage of ‘global human race’. Like ‘civilization’ and ‘museums’, it seems, ‘human race’ and ‘heritage’ are also ahistorical, de-contextualized and dissociated from politics of power structures and their relations; they do not have any generation, formation, transformation and annihilation.

Second, representing the destruction and looting as self-conscious, visible and violent act, even when it is not identified to be committed by Iraqis as agents. In this narrative the autonomous and self-constituted agents are mostly officials of US-British civil and military administration.

Third, protesting and seeking the restoration measures by accepting the modern liberal nation-states and their national and international laws, conventions and institutions by assuming their status as unquestionable.

I think the three points identified above are extremely important for starting a much-required polemics at this moment in time. I contend that the attack on archaeological remains and museums must be analyzed within a history of politico-epistemological spaces. These spaces are discursively formulated as they are created, transmuted and destroyed simultaneously within and by complex processes and conditions of modern power (i.e. capitalistic enterprises, modern nation-state, law, disciplinary knowledge, institutions, colonialism, etc.). The knowledge produced as and by heritage, I claim, is not something that is ahistorical, objective and empirical and can be constructed and/or destroyed by autonomous individuals or collectives. Rather I will argue that the liberal understanding of subjective activity regarding heritage has been constructed and consolidated as normal, commonsensical and self-evident within the history of unequal relationship between the West and non-West in conditions and processes of colonialism and imperialism. The liberal ideas and images of modern and secular heritage has been mediating between the present and the past, between modern, progressive, secular and pre-modern, reactionary, ‘fundamentalist’, and between the democratic and the despotic, the benevolent and the violent. This mediation is not simple in any way. Mediation operates, as suggested by the modernization as a project of the West, through complex and sometimes, quite contradictory and oppositional but unequal forces and processes of rationalization and sacralization. Thus, violence could be justified and legalized through liberal understanding of modern nation-state and through subjectefied and quantifiable modes of defining violence authenticated by its principles. This liberal discourse of violence overlaps extraordinarily with the liberal doctrines of heritage. The ‘others’ and the discursive spaces inhabited by them are constructed as inherently mythic, dark, evil, profane and therefore, inhuman. The modernizing project implies, it is not only that the sacralization and humanization of the ‘non-Western’ others should be achieved through a persuasive and if necessary, forceful, process of redemption as a rational and sacred act and responsibility of the ‘West’. What is most fearful and contradictory is that the liberal doctrine assumes that this redemption is essential for the survival of humanity, that is, of the ‘West’ and the liberal doctrine itself. Heritage in a crucial way acts as a moral, ethical and legal space in prescribing and realizing the project of redemption. Here, particular forms and modes of violence and cruelty are rationalized and de-rationalized by calculated quantification and by invoking that it is for the sake of the survival of liberal institutions and concepts [12].

I should also clarify my inclusion of two lines at the beginning of this paper from a song of ADF. One can easily misinterpret the ‘who’ there as having an autonomous agency, be that a person or collective. There is also a teleology connoted in the lyric, that is essential to liberalism. But I included the song to refer mainly to West and its counterparts in the non-West, where the relation between these two is consistent/contingent- confirming/ contesting depending on the conditions of act- but is ultimately unequal. Therefore, ‘who’, as I have interpreted here through the process of inclusion, must be understood as categories constructed by modern power such as the ‘West’. I would also like to point that the ‘West’ and `non-West’ are not used here as a territorial space represented by modern cartography. Instead, they will be applied here as two categories that have been constructed as opposites, as standards of comparison, as difference in attitudes and capacities within the same conditions of asymmetry in the relations of modern power.



Since the eighteenth century the idea of ‘civilization’ has been constructed and made effective to construct the difference and inequality between ‘the West’ and ‘non-West’.[13] In determining the historical conditions for construction of the dominating identity of the West, the concept of civilization, liberal sciences and modernity are foundationally embedded and articulated into each other. These embodiments act in such a way that in most cases ‘West’, ‘modern’, ‘scientific’, ‘democratic’, ‘secular’ and ‘civilized’ are used or thought to denote same meaning, condition and quality. Interestingly, that makes sense as ‘normal’ too in the West and as well as in the modernized and secularized ‘non-West’.

Knowledge produced by the institutionalized disciplines of understanding of heritage has played a key role in making of these terms synonymous, normal and commonsensical. Especially, if we inquire into the genealogy of archaeology as a discipline, we notice that this discipline contributed to supply raw materials in the construction of the dominating characteristics of ‘the West’. On one side, archaeology has been acting in the production of knowledge to construct the ‘selfhood’ of the ‘West’. The complex processes of identity manufacturing have been done by reconstructing the past with the ‘scientific’ understanding of the stages ‘the West’ has passed through in the universal path of ‘evolution’ and ‘progress’ of ‘human kind’. The image of West thus constructed is represented as the best, as ideal, as normal, as humane and above all, as civilized and sacred. On the other hand, non-Western cultures, religions and histories were constructed as the opposite, as ‘the other’. It has normalized that the stateless, non-Western societies are inferior, backward and degraded than the modern, superior and civilized ‘West’ and they are living in primitive and barbaric stages of ‘prehistory’ or ‘inhumanity’. The narratives of archaeology (along with anthropology and history) produced ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ methods and evidences to normalize the notion that in essence these societies are static or slow in ‘progress’. These narratives of past became part and parcel of an entire hegemonic knowledge which essentialized that the colonial and imperial civilizing projects are the only and inevitable way to initiate or enhance their ‘progress’. Thus, we may notice that archaeology manufactured the progressivist knowledge to validate and legalize the Western projects in which the concept of ‘civilization’ has essentially been embedded and articulated. I want to note that modern nation-states with their national and international legal institutions and capitalistic enterprises are two most important structural conditions of modern power in which this knowledge has taken its formation, and infallible and dominating authority.

What is very significant in my view is the construction and exclusion of non-West as ‘other’ in this liberal narrative of ‘civilization’. For example, in the grand narrative of civilization, Islam and Islamic ‘civilizations’ have been excluded quite carefully through complex processes and changes. Talal Asad has shown vividly that in the narrative of Western ‘self’, that is, of civilization, Islam has been constructed and excluded in such ways that it is characterized as being devoid of the ‘essences’ of ‘civilization’. He argues that  ‘ “Islamic civilization” was denied a vital link to the properties that define so much of what is essential to Europe for postulating civilizational differences between the two. This denial and exclusion were, as Asad observes, achieved in two moves: ‘first, by denying that it has an essence of its own, “Islam” can be represented as a carrier civilization that helped to bring important elements into Europe from outside, material and intellectual elements that were only contingently connected to Islam. Then, paradoxically, to this carrier civilization is attributed an essence: an ingrained hostility to all non-Muslims. … In this, as in other historical narratives of Europe, this oppositional role gives “Islam” a quasi-civilizational identity. One aspect of the identity of Islamic civilization is that it represents an early attempt to destroy Europe’s civilization from outside, another is that it signifies the corrupting moral environment that Europe must continuously struggle to overcome from within’.[14]

The de-essentialization of Europe, Asad reminds us, is not exclusive in a simple sense. It is the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism that people’s historical experience is inessential to them and it can be discarded or incorporated at will. These liberal ideals of civilization are crucial for our understanding of the issue of Iraq. They make it possible to claim more powerfully for the Enlightenment declaration for universality. Asad has shown that: ‘Muslims, as members of the abstract category of “humans”, can be assimilated or (as some recent theorist have put it) “translated” into a global (“European” or “Western”) civilization once they have divested themselves of what many of them regard (mistakenly) as essential to themselves. This belief of liberalism that human beings can be separated from their histories and traditions (heritage) makes it possible to urge an Europeanization (Westernization or Americanization) of the Islamic world’.[15]

Here I am not trying to argue that liberalism and ideals of civilization are good or bad. I am also very concerned about not declaring that the whole of my argument is just a consideration of (ab)use (or political use) of some intrinsically ‘pure’ concepts (i.e. heritage, humanity, civilization, etc.). This is the teleological rationale by which liberal and secular intellectuals usually try to defend liberalism and secularism. I am making an attempt, quite differently, to say that within the structures of inequality of power and capacities how some standards are being constructed as essential for the identity of ‘West’ and ‘non-West’. It is also to show that the virtually normal notion of liberal ideals of heritage is clearly a historical product where the ‘West’ has been dominant. My proposition is that liberalism, foundationally and essentially, is a discourse that was formed in these structural conditions. I claim that liberalism (and liberal understandings of civilization and heritage are, in terms of its intrinsic properties, incoherent and contradictory. It has not only been dominating and violent in nature to the non-Western lives and cultures, especially Islam. At the same time, the conditions and processes of its construction as such acted so authoritatively that the non-Westerns, and Muslims in particular in this case, appropriate its constructs as normal, rational, authentic and moreover, as most desirable.  I am quite concerned about the fact that I am being essentialist in the sense by which prevailing dominating narrative of anti-essentialist post-modernist narratives would identify my position. But I agree with David Scott when he claims that ‘there are occasions of political conjuncture in which essentialisms are appropriate- indeed perhaps even required-and there are others in which they are not.’[16]



I contend that the conspicuously arranged demagogue of ‘freedom’ or ‘expression of freedom after annihilation of the despotic regime’ by Bush doctrine and mainstream media essentially embody, may be covertly, the liberal concepts of ‘heritage’, ‘civilization’ and ‘Islam’ that I have already theorized. Do these rhetorics connote that the incidents of destroying and looting the museums can be interpreted as autonomous act of the Iraqis to be redeemed? Are these the ways by which the Iraqis are acting to shake off their degraded and profane heritage and identity? If it is so, then this rhetoric covertly suggests, may be, that the Iraqis are attaining freedom not only from the regime of Saddam Hussein, but also from the despotic and corrupting civilizational identity of Islam. This narrative, moreover, connotes that by doing so Iraqis are uplifting themselves to the status of ‘Human’. But this autonomy, as the meaning underlying the official propaganda before and after the attack might reveal and if the meaning is mediated by my theorization, is not an essence in its own term. On the contrary, the hidden discourse goes on to imply that it must be and should be generated by the direct assistance from the West. Interestingly, the arguments justifying the attack carries inherently the notion, in my opinion, that the ‘self-conscious urge for freedom’ is achievable through willful submission to the forced transformation towards progress and ‘civilization’ by the support and appropriation of historically superior and civilized West and its norms. Most of the liberal protests or statements declaring alarm and concern are bearing the same essences for they are simply undermining the entire problem-space by not questioning it. I suggest, therefore, President Bush’s comments after the looting and destruction of Museums articulate quite comfortably into universalized liberal notions of ‘civilization’, ‘Islam’, and ‘heritage’. The section that follows would possibly throw light on these hidden but essential agendas of liberalism.


Still there is another problem. How does the idea of ‘Mesopotamian civilization’ intersect with essences of the grand Western narrative of civilization? To explain this issue further I would like to take ideas from one brilliant paper by Zainab Bahrani[17], a teacher of Art History and Critical Theory at State University of New York, Stony Brook. Her explanations will be of great importance for my arguments.

Zainab analyzes the origination and application of the term ‘Mesopotamia’ and shows how it is essentially connected to the expansion and consolidation of Western domination in this geographical region. She pointed to the fact that Western travelers-adventurers-missionaries were pouring into this region for seeking archaeological evidences to prove and justify the narrative of Old Testament. But in the eighteenth century with the consolidation of Western colonial regimes, many region specific departments and institutions were established in Western universities, sometimes with direct administrative support, sometimes with private entrepreneurship. Many of these institutions were, I note, on Biblical Archaeology. The question, however, is why did Western academics suddenly select Iraq and adjacent regions for producing the knowledge of heritage?

Many thinkers in recent times have unearthed the reasons behind this sudden burst of so-called liberal notion of an ‘essentially human desire to know past’.[18] According to these thinkers, during this period the Westerners dispersed themselves out for different interconnected and coincidental historical conditions. These were the proliferation of sea borne trade and commerce, occupation of foreign land to establish colonies, spreading the holy words of Christendom to salvage the fallen (‘non-Western’) sinners and the inspiration propagated by romanticism and liberal enlightenment ideals. By this time, the established Western notions were shocked heavily by the encounter with the multiplicity of non-Western societies, cultures, polities and religions. Biblical genealogy was being questioned and the Western ‘self’, constructed before this period, was placed in a state of fragility and incoherence never experienced before. In these conditions there came the required permutations, transformations, accommodations and modifications. The new narrative, selectively appropriating and rejecting the older ones, homogenized the multiplicity and constructed the idea of a ‘global human race’ where the essences of human were identified: creativity, capacity to act consciously, equality, reason, sacredness, inherent goodness, etc. A unilinear evolutionary framework was manufactured to arrange the different races to depict that although human beings were the same at the source (thus conforming to Biblical genealogy), for difference in historical events, racial characteristics, capacities and environment, they (and their essential cores) did not develop at the same rate. I would like to point out here that the process of homogenization simultaneously constructed new differences within this evolutionary ladder.  This grand narrative insinuates that some are living in primitive or barbaric stages, as they are not white, as they do not have the idea of private property, modern statehood and modern law. Besides, it is because the constructed ‘other’ do not follow the idea of secularism and they do not possess the modern democratic system and values, they are quite different and opposite to the essences of civilized and liberal West. According to this frame of reference the ‘West’ is the best because it did not only inherited and contained the essences of classical Greek and Roman civilization. But it also elaborated all these essences of civilization by transforming and sacralizing the ‘other’ into civilized and secular and human.

Yet, there were more shocks to be encountered. Civilizations, as per the Western criteria, were discovered in present Iraq and Egypt (and later, in pre-1947 India, later defined as present Pakistan). Interestingly, in all these regions Muslims are the majority. Further modification was then required to maintain the superiority of Western narrative and to legitimate colonial regime and its modernizing missions. It is in these conditions that ‘newly discovered’ civilizations were appropriated into the grand narrative of Western civilization. Zainab has brilliantly shown how it was at this time when ‘Mesopotamian civilization’ was constructed by the West and became institutionalized and more and more powerful. She uncovers that at that time Mesopotamia did not refer to any definite geographical space (that is, it did not mean the ‘Middle East’ or ‘Near East’ or Iraq). Rather a time was created by Mesopotamia that marks the primordial, impure, incomplete stage: ‘dawn of civilization’. This is how, Zainab explains, Mesopotamia was dissociated from the geographical space in order to incorporate it into the narratives of Western identity. Subsequently, it was categorized into three further developmental stages: Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian. This entire process, as it is conditioned by the inequality between the West and non-West, Zainab argues, contains double meanings: on the one hand Mesopotamia indicates the childhood of human culture when human race made a gradual mission from savagery to civilization. On the other hand, by separating Mesopotamia from its present geography of post seventh century Iraq and ‘Near East’, it was possible to establish that oriental cultures are static and ahistorical, living in the same stages or even have been polluted and degenerated. We notice here that by fixing a discrete boundary of static time, the core ideas of Western civilization were protected. This fixation and dissociation proceeded further, she elaborates, to suggest that the lamp of civilization was handed over from the ‘near east’ through Greek and Roman civilization to the Western civilization. But the time of the orient, Zainab contends by taking the term from Montesquieu, one of the founders of Western liberal political science, can be labelled as ‘despotic time’.[19]

Zainab cited Montesquieu’s differentiation of government into three categories. The republic is the ideal government of classical Greece and Rome; the Monarchy is of the West. On the contrary, most Asian countries possess the despotism.[20] Louis Althusser pointed out while analyzing Montesquieu that despotism is a political regime, which has no structure, no laws and lacks any social space. He demarcated despotism ‘as a political regime, which does not exist, as such, but is the constant temptation and peril of other regimes’.[21] Althusser identified despotism as ‘space without places, time without duration’.[22] From this point we can re-read the incessant efforts and success of Western liberal countries in labeling the rulers of ‘Middle East’ as despotic, in portraying Saddam Hussein as a fanatic and evil dictator. I must say, these are epistemologically articulated within the continuous construction and modification processes of this liberal discourse of Mesopotamian civilization. The US-British project of liberating Iraq and Iraqi people from evil and profane, besides, had its ascendancy as a very powerful ideology for not only some economistic interests. My point is that the idea of Mesopotamia conforming to the discourse of civilization certainly has been a discursive space in and by which redeeming acts gains it power and authority.

The core concepts of Mesopotamia, we find in the analyses of Zainab, are within the same version of Western civilization in which Islam and Islamic civilization have been excluded by denying any essence. In these ways, Zainab’s elucidation converges with the theorization of Asad that I have mentioned earlier. According to this enumeration the excellence of Mesopotamia had gone to gradual degradation from after the seventh century, though it indicated the infancy of human civilization. The post seventh century geography that came into eminence by the name of Iraq under the Ottoman Empire, thus, was excluded from Mesopotamia. We can find the name, Iraq, in the time of the writings of geographer Yakut al Rumi (born 575 AH/ 1179 AD) and in 4th century AH/ 10th century AD descriptions of Ibn Hawkal.[23] Despite that in the Western grand narrative of civilization Iraq (and other geographical spaces) are absent. Accordingly, Mesopotamia has become a distant space-time of pre-Islamic glory, called as ‘dead civilization’ by famous Mesopotamian scholar A. Leo Oppenheim in 1964.[24] Afterward, Western pundits think that the traces of civilization evaporated under Muslim rule. For example, we can cite from the writings on Islamic art of Khorsabad by famous archaeologist-art historian James Fergusson. He opined that ‘Khorsabad formed a period of decay in Assyrian art…but this is even more striking when we again pass over eight centuries of time reach Persepolis, which is as much inferior to Khorsabad as that is to Nimrud’.[25] By this comment on a period, identified by Montesquieu as despotic, decay and inertia are established as essential to Islamic civilization and polities.

What is more interesting and might be left unnoticed by the liberal proponents of heritage, is, that concomitantly with the exclusion and marginalization of Islam there is a paradoxical process of inclusion. Jews were included in the domain of civilization by stating that Jews and Greeks are still carrying the lamp of civilization because they speak the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek.[26]

At this stage of my argument, readers might find some very strong currents between the past and present politico-religious liberal doctrines about the region that was re-drawn in 1902 as ‘Middle East’ by Alfred Thayer Mahan for military strategic purposes.[27] I strongly claim that the politics of exclusion and inclusion in the history of the construction process of ‘Mesopotamia as civilization and global heritage’ is essentially and foundationally embedded in the liberal doctrine and its discourse of heritage. Therefore, destruction and distortion, looting and stealing, covertly or overtly and violently (or non-violently), are going on for over three hundred years as part and parcel of this construction processes. I don’t think it is the cause or effect of recent attack and violence on Iraq. Rather violence and destruction are essential to the Western discourse of Mesopotamian civilization and to the construction processes of liberalism itself.


The idea of Mesopotamian civilization does not only embody the processes of exclusion and inclusion in a straightforward way. If we closely get involved with one of the fundamental essences of Western civilization, we can find out a consistency, though in contingency of discursive spaces, in liberal doctrine throughout last three centuries. This essence is, according to Asad, the capacity of ‘productive elaboration’. Asad suggested that ‘this view could be understood in the context of a particular Enlightenment theory about property first propounded by John Locke’,[28] one of the key foundational figures of liberal thought. I would like here to take liberty to quote from Locke: ‘god gave the world to men in common, but since he gave it them for their benefit and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it); not to fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious’.[29] Asad identifies that applied to whole peoples, property was “European” (and you may call “American”, as elucidated by Asad’s theorization of ‘European Project’) to the extent that Europeans (and Americans) appropriated, cultivated, and then lawfully passed it onto generations of Europeans (and Americans) as their own inheritance. “European (and American) history” thus becomes a history of continuously productive actions defining as well as defined by Law. Property is central to that story not only in the sense familiar to political economy and jurisprudence, but also in the sense of particular character, nature, or essence of a person or thing…. According to this conception, “European civilization” (read ‘civilization’) is simply the sum of properties, all those material and moral acts that define European identity [30]. Here I am interchangeably using “Europe” and “America”. That doesn’t mean that there is no difference in the history and conditions in the formation of their identity. But I am not arguing here for differences, rather I would like to understand “Europe” and “America” in a broad structural continuum in which both of them bears the common essence of civilization and liberalism.

Lockean idea of productive elaboration, as it has been identified by Asad, in reference to the notion of property acted heavily as an ideological validation and legalization of colonial and imperial occupation and transformation of non-Western cultures. Though the narrative appears as liberal and secular to the believers, the idea that the whole processes and conditions of violent occupation are the result of divine commandments is essentially connoted in it. If we closely look at the heart of the matter, we will find an interesting discursive domain where the Western narratives on Iraq (and Middle East) in recent times intersect and overlap with the Lockean ideal.

Iraq (and ‘Middle East’) with its natural resources becomes a rightful domain, a divinely justified territory to be occupied for “productive elaboration”. American and whole liberal narration illustrates the theme. What is more substantive is the very dominating liberal doctrine that ‘Middle East’ is one of the regions that is most susceptible to terrorism generation and a kind of mythic and exotic geographical territory in the world. Its susceptibility stems out from its essential inter religious and inter state conflicts that is an outcome of the conditions propagated by the historical absence of liberal and democratic institutions and values. This absence, as the liberal narrative states, is represented and re-drawn, as if, I point, it is a natural phenomenon of not only Iraqi (and middle eastern) people and governance, but also of Islam and Islamic laws and life ways. It hints that these are all contaminated and contained by a quarrelsome and contentious statehood and people throughout their covetous history (and heritage after the expansion of Islam). The separation of Mesopotamia from the present geography very comfortably matches within this liberal narrative as it conforms and justifies the essential character of the ‘middle East’ and Arabs. Archaeologically built narratives thus validate the attack on Iraq (not only through the application of direct force, but also through representations-as in corporate media and academic researches-and politico-economic measures-as with sanctions). Because it becomes the territory to be redeemed from these essences and to be productively worked upon lawfully under divine providence. Please recall here the Christian vocabularies incorporated, sometimes corrected as slip of tongue, in the innumerable speeches, press conferences and news commentaries by American government officials and corporate media. In my view, the space presently known as Iraq as well as the past are transformed and redefined, thus, into equitable property to be maximized. Violence integral to these transformation processes is justified and even, legalized under this liberal discourse of civilization and heritage.

At this point I would like to refer to a few remarks by some American pundits, affiliated to a particular institution, after the destruction of Iraqi museums. These remarks and the recent efforts of American legislators to enact ‘Iraq Culture Heritage Protection Act’ and the content of the act itself, I think, will uncover the dilemma of liberal understanding and laws regarding heritage and ‘cultural property’.


American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) which was founded and is run by prominent art dealers, art lawyers and collectors, has been crucial in devising governmental policies regarding archaeological objects. They use the term “cultural property” (please take the notion of property and its productive elaboration into account) for the archaeological objects with great market value. ACCP became notorious for supporting New York art dealer Frederick Schultz. He was convicted under the National Stolen Property Act and eventually was found not guilty in reference to the 1977 US vs. McClain case. These juridical processes legitimized buying of any stolen objects in the US. ACCP has also been lobbying to undermine the Near Eastern State’s legal institution to protect their national heritage.[31] Ashton Hawkins, a leading art lawyer and founder of the ACCP condemned these countries as “retentionist” as they have particular legislation prohibiting export of any object with values for their national heritage. According to recent report “Hawkins himself retired in 2000 as vice president of the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an institution that, according to its own former director, Thomas Hoving, holds many artifacts looted from Etruscan tombs”.[32] American ideas of archaeological objects and their values intersect very overtly with Lockean notions of “property”. Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School and a member of the ACCP went on to claim that, “The existence of a market preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them”[33]. Merryman’s comments implicitly connote that the Iraqi State and people do not have the capacity to look after their cultural objects and civilizations, and therefore, their heritage is a lawful domain for wealthy persons and institutions of the West. My point here is well supported by Hawkins’ proposal to Cairo Museum. “I would like to propose,” he uttered, “that the Cairo Museum offer museums around the world the opportunity to acquire up to 50 objects for their collections. In return, the museums would make a very substantial contribution for the construction of the new museum under the Giza plateau—$1 million each, for example”.[34]

Here, my argument is that liberalism can not be understood without the historical transformation of capitalistic system and its fundamental calculus of liberal international market. It is a well understood phenomenon that the interest of Western liberal states and multicorporate agencies are being cherished by many international laws and institutions, both cultural and economic in the crudest sense of categories. The Lockean notion of “productive elaboration” is one of the key points of reference and departure for the entire capitalistic legalizing structures. I am saying that liberal constructions of civilization and museums are two interconnected spaces in which the West has regularized and validates its superiority as the keeper of civilizational objects and values. The looted objects from museums of Iraq, then I must say, at one side symbolizes the barbaric or primitive ignorance and hostility of the non-Western, of Muslims in particular, to their past. On the other side, the thematic conceals the articulation of ideology and power of capital and liberal ideals of heritage through which the West has gained its ascendancy over the ‘other’. It is in the sense that it presupposes the higher capability and power of the Western self to elaborate other’s “cultural property” and as well as their inferior capacities in understanding and protecting their past and identity. Liberal ideology thus assumes the status of the dominating. The discourse of heritage is such a powerful domain, articulated within the liberal doctrine, that it makes its concepts and ideas as a desirable moral and psychological yardstick to the non-Westerners.

But, for the liberal protectors of Iraqi heritage, recently introduced bill to which I have already referred at the beginning, could be identified as a corrective measure of the damage. Someone may also locate the initiative as a gesture of a state that assumes its sacred and civilized authority to liberate others and the self from the threat of evil. In my opinion, the bill exemplifies the liberal dilemma. Let me take a few core provisions for scrutiny. I am going to take here the voice of SAA that hailed (as it did not oppose or contest) this statist move for my purpose.

By this bill it has been guaranteed, according to SAA, that,

‘First, it would prohibit the importation of any Iraqi antiquity or cultural object that left Iraq after August 2, 1990, the date that sanctions were imposed. If documentation can be shown that it was shipped out of Iraq prior to that date, then there is no problem. This provision of the bill has the effect of keeping the current sanctions in place, but only for Iraqi antiquities and cultural materials.

Second, it would amend the Cultural Properties Implementation Act to enhance the President’s emergency powers to impose import restrictions against cultural material from threatened nations without the elaborate procedure currently required. This provision will make it much easier to help bring relief to nations experiencing widespread looting of their cultural heritage.

Third, it would also allow the President to impose import restrictions for nations that are not party to the Convention on Cultural Property. This would help stem the flow of looted artifacts from such nations as Afghanistan and Cambodia, nations where looting is endemic, and there is little hope that their governments will join the Convention anytime soon.’[35]

I have used Italics to identify words/phrases that seems to me as questionable. The web site of SAA from where this summarization of the bill has been included says nothing more on this. No comments are there for the proposed date- 10 August 1990- before which the bill would be ineffective. SAA didn’t raise any question against the imposed sanction of Iraq effected on 10 August 1990. No question is there about the very validity and legality of the sanction that was approved by the liberal laws and their national and international understanding. There is no discussion on the possible interconnection of the destruction and looting of heritage with the sanction and its massive violent effects on Iraqi children and their parents. Though, we were informed by Charles Trip of SOAS that the sanction accentuated poverty has been a very formidable cause for the looting and vandalism of archaeological material in Iraq as the objects have a good market value in the west.[36]

I am not arguing here to indicate and prove the illegality of the sanction imposed on Iraq, though we know that the rationales on which the sanction was validated were premised on lie and cruel interests. In the same way it can be argued against the rationales of the US-British attack. But my point is different. It is precisely that liberal legislature, in spite of its claim for universal reason and equality, can never be such. Because the very assumptions underlying these claims are controlled and redefined by the conditions of local/global articulation of power. The possibility of imposing sanctions by Iraq (or any other countries) on United States is quite absurd at this moment in time. The US move to enact the ‘Iraq cultural heritage protection act’ must be understood on this ground. Is it possible for any other countries (even Britain) right now to take initiative for such an enactment? I think it is not. This is particularly for the fact that the possibilities for any action or reaction are being endlessly constructed and redefined by modern power relations. Moreover, the rise of United States as the only super power makes one issue clear that this is the country that possesses the power to control national and international market of cultural and archaeological materials. I want to remind that the liberal and secular ‘law never seeks to eliminate violence since its object is always to regulate violence’.[37] That is why it is possible for SAA to legalize the identification of some nations as threatened, though US has been claiming officially itself a threatened nation for a long time. According to official US vocabulary the threat was first there from the communists and now from the (Islamic) terrorists. In the same conditions, it is possible to categorize some nations as ‘not party to the convention of cultural property’. Interestingly, United States and its allies (especially Israel) are not party of many international conventions and they simply disagreed with and violated so many conventions over the time.

I want to end this section by taking section 6 (b)(1) of the proposed bill. By amending the ‘Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act’ it has been inserted that ‘no import restrictions under section 307 may be applied under this section to the archaeological or ethnological materials of any country for more than 10 years after the date on which the notice in the Federal Register imposing such restrictions is published’.[38] Doesn’t this particular amendment conform to the ACCP’s demands? At least we shouldn’t forget that liberal laws with its recognition and construction of subject and agency have an essential historical relation to the idea of private property.[39]


My interpretations of museums do not necessarily mean that museums are being constructed with the looted and bought objects from the non-Western cultures in only recent times. It also does not mean that there could be a liberal idea of museum where a pure and truly neutral representation of the heritage can be or can not be organized. My point here is very precise. I do not want to separate the liberal theories intersected prominently with capitalistic enterprises and its legislative institutions from the historical and coincidental development of the concept of civilization and museums constructed by the discipline of archaeology and museum studies. But my point should not be identified as economistic. This sort of generalization will be a simplification of the very core of my critique of liberal ideals of heritage. I am particularly interested in, as my entire attempt does try to show, the vast and intricate articulation of unequal power between the West and non-West in the post-enlightenment era. My goal is also to understand contingency of these articulations in and through which heritage, liberalism, market system, legal structures, imperial occupation, secularism and massacres interact from different trajectories in the conditions of modernity.

Museums have been developed as a discursive space to subordinate the colonized non-West and their heritage and to construct the present essences of Western identities. Many works in recent times have illustrated these essential features of museums.[40] The innumerable museums that were established during the colonial encounter in London, Berlin, Paris and New York are continuing with their ever-augmenting fame and stature by looting, destroying and smuggling non-Western archaeological records. Dominating and hegemonic structures of the Western ideas about the past underlying the ACCP’s and United States’ intellectual and legal agendas, I think, could be more vivid with reference to an exhibition organized by Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1992.

The exhibition entitling “The Royal City of Susa” and represented Mesopotamian Royal Monuments included the famous stele of Naramsin. These sculptures and monumental relics were fragmented into pieces and taken to Iran by the Elamites in the twelfth century BC. The “catalogue and didactic materials” of the museum conformed to the liberal narrative of heritage by “expressing horror at this act of theft and destruction” in such ways that “oriental violence and cruelty was seen as a valid explanation for these actions”.[41] Ironically, no whereabouts were there about how these pieces have reached in a museum of New York. Another point about the exhibition is of vital importance. This is, in Zainab’s words, that ‘neither the didactic material in the exhibit, nor the wall maps, made mention of the words Iraq or Iran. The reasoning behind this was, no doubt, that only the ancient names should be represented in a “high cultural” institution.  However, … this  is not a common practice with exhibits representing ancient Western cultures within  the same institution, nor others like it in this country’.[42] Zainab further points to the fact that this is a clear example of disassociation of the past and present of a particular geographical region.[43]

The interrelation between liberal ideals of Arab heritage and American political and military policies in the same region becomes conspicuously clear if we take a commentary in Houston Chronicle after a US air strike in Iraq into account. The writer  Kanan Makiya states here: “Before initiating his pre-inaugural raids on Iraq (Clinton) should have visited the exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called ‘The Royal City of Susa.’ Had he attended the exhibit, he would have seen that, like Saddam Hussein, the kings and queens of ancient Mesopotamia lived in moral fear of loosing face before their enemies”.[44] In these connecting phrases of Makiya, Saddam Hussein was portrayed as a despot generically and historically. All the more, his despotism is essentialized as being historical formation of the people in the whole region named as Mesopotamia. Therefore, this liberal notion, as explicitly represented in Makiya, can not be termed as ‘(ab)use’ of something ‘pure’, ‘self-evident’ and ‘objective’, as liberal arguments tend to put it.


When the Taliban government destroyed the Buddha statue of Bamian, there was a mighty outcry from the liberal protectors of heritage. These reactions came out principally from the Western world, and also from the non-Western parts. Persons from different hierarchical associations, from high government officials to the intellectuals, condemned the ‘fundamentalist’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘barbaric’ Talibani regime for committing this act of ‘violence and intolerance’ to ‘a heritage of humanity’. It was hardly possible to find somebody, as represented in the mainstream media, who came forward with a different observation on the entire event by taking the historical context of Afghanistan into account. Though Taliban envoy, Rahmatullah Hashimi, rationalized the destruction in overtly humanistic terms. According to him, an NGO was providing money for the restoration of the statues. But there was a refugee camp nearby where 300 children were dying for unavailability of minimum medical support. The Taliban government requested for money for those children and the NGO denied. Hashimi said that it was after that denial of NGO, they decided to destroy the statues.[45] It has also been reported that after the incident money flooded in from many corners for the restoration of the statues. But, alas! Liberal eyes were shut as no money was there for the dying children of Afghanistan. Note, I am not here arguing about whether the destruction of Bamian statues was right or wrong, moral or immoral. The righteousness or morality does not possess any universal rationale and they are conceived and represented in relation to agency in different cultural and religious traditions differently. I think the universalized rationale of morality is part of a series of transmutations of liberal doctrine. It is from within historically privileged conditions that the liberals like Tony Blair can claim for a moral justification for an act, such as, attacking Iraq. I am just pointing to the fact that the ideas of preservation and restoration and concepts of morality and agency related to these acts are not universal and de-contextualized as it is suggested by UNESCO convention of world heritage, ICOMOS charters and other liberal understanding of heritage. Rather, they should be interpreted in the context of different politico-historical conditions of different cultures, nations and religions in which these acts are invoked, represented and deleted.[46]

As I have referred at the beginning, the Western pundits including those from WAC were expressing their concern and alarm over the heritage of Mesopotamian civilization in Iraq in wartime. World Archaeological Congress (WAC) that was founded with a goal to make a ground for understanding and polemics among different archaeologists from different traditions, had included many burning political questions (apartheid, colonialism and Babri Masjid destruction) for debate in their agendas. Why did Prof. Hall, the president of WAC, issued a polite and submissive statement without taking into concern the whole imperial construction of the very idea of heritage? While the roles and universalized assumptions of UN and UNESCO are being interrogated by many from the English and non-English speaking parts of the world, why his act of acknowledgement of their role is not only obedient, but also connotes a transformed location of WAC? What are the conditions and processes that silenced their voice to raise against the core liberal assumptions of heritage? We have to remember the Foucauldian notion of power that is infinitely extended. The power of the ‘words’ and ‘language’ as a representation system can through light on our conception about some historical contingency and continuity. Let us recall the very fact that the entire aggressor forces (‘coalition forces’ according to Prof. Hall and liberal mainstream media) constituted the English speaking nation-states- United States, Britain and Australia. The formation of these states embedded directly into the modern conditions of military oppression and annihilation of ‘nations’ (not ‘tribes’ or ‘indigenous communities’, note). I must reiterate here the enormous power and strength of the conditions and structures built by liberal and academic doctrines that assist, hide and reshape cruel and violent acts in and by complex and multifaceted representations of expressions. Of course, the acts and as well as, the acts of expressions are contingent as per their very context and processes of construction. But these contingencies are reflected through and in the productions of possibilities. Isn’t Prof. Hall’s statement a proof of that enormity, of that continuous production of possibilities and their selection?

As we have noticed in reactions of the academics and intellectuals, they were concerned about not committing the ‘sin’ of destroying the world heritage in Iraq again as was done during the Gulf war 11 years before. But none of them questioned the American-British (and Israeli) policies and their contextual dynamics and contour to the Arabs in the post-world war period. At that very moment when liberals asked Western governments to protect the ‘heritage of civilization’ in Iraq, malnutrition and absence of minimum medical support due to sanction already murdered millions of children. In that time thousands of children and adults were suffering from radio active depleted uranium pollution in the southern Iraq that has been caused by the Western attack, termed as Gulf War. How can we explain archaeologists’ and other pundits’ acts of silence on this ‘cruelty’ and ‘violence’? As we have already seen, the objects legally conceived as ‘cultural property’ has a huge market value in the West. My question, therefore, is if Iraqi parents in such a situation dismantle their ‘cultural property’ for getting money to save their babies’ lives, what would the liberal protectors of heritage have uttered? Yes, the Iraqis were doing this act of ‘violence’ to the ‘heritage’. But can the liberals blame and punish them? Can the liberal juridical and legal system ask them to be accountable and responsible? Ideally they can. Because, Liberalism ‘defines a completed personal action from within an indefinite network of causality by attributing to an actor responsibility to power. Paradigmatically, this means forcing a person to be accountable, to answer to a judge in a court of law why things were done or left undone. In that sense agency is built on the idea of blame and pain. A world of apparent accidents is rendered into a world of essences by attributing to a person moral/legal responsibility on whose basis guilt and innocence (and therefore punishment and exoneration) are determined’.[47] How did this idea of agency and subjectivity become powerful? Asad traces this in the theorization of John Locke. According to Asad in Lokean sense ‘… “person” was theorized as a forensic term that called for the integration of a single subject with a  continuous consciousness in a single body.’[48] Despite the development of property law, to which I have already mentioned, Asad recognizes that ‘equally important was the way attributing an essence to him helped the human subject to become an object of social discipline’.[49] But in this way, the state and corporation cannot be subjected to disciplines as their essential feature, as liberalism reveals, is the non-corporeality. They do not die as the humans do. Moreover, violence and cruelty have been quantified through liberal doctrines and laws (i.e. Geneva Convention). The kind and amount of violence and pain that is regarded as legal or illegal for the subjective acts might not be cruel and violent for the State and its authorized categories. Here, there is the liberal algebra of sovereignty and security. Measured, according to the liberal view, pain and cruelty could be applied for the protection of sovereign state and humanity and freedom. But, who do the act of measurement? How and in what conditions the acts of measurements occur? What kind of genealogy is there for these conditions? If these questions are approached, the dilemma becomes more and more prominent. That is why, quite ironically, I can use this modern western essentialization of human subject, agency and cruelty to show that Iraqis cannot be blamed.

I can say that it is according to their narrative, the heritage belongs to a long gone ‘civilization’ dissociated from Iraqis’ present. It is the liberal understanding of heritage, which suggests that the people of Iraq are now Muslims and degenerated a lot under the past centuries of Islamic rule, as many of them do not submit themselves to the liberal ideas of statehood and legality. The proponents of heritage and civilization must not condemn them because, it is as per their standards, Iraqis are ‘fundamentalists’, ‘barbaric’, ‘terrorists’ and above all, devoid of the very essences that define humane, humanity and civilization! That is why, I suppose we have noticed that the archaeologists kept their silence because it is for this absence they thought and supported that Iraqis required an  ‘operation Iraqi freedom’! The liberal values themselves do not make it obligatory to follow all the rules and regulations of the liberal polities for conducting these operations! Because the guru of liberalism, John Locke, prophesied long before when the heinous massacres of ‘American Indians’ by the whites were being questioned, that the sacred liberal values and laws would only apply to the nations and individuals who do possess the liberal standards like private property, modern nationhood and nation-state.[50] So that, the essences of liberal narratives themselves validate that the promiscuous Muslims, the despotic Iraqis and the fundamentalist Arabs can naturally commit these sorts of crimes towards universal ideals of humanity and civilization! What a paradox!




Jeynep Toufe, a doctoral student from University of Texas, at Austin, wrote an ingenious short commentary in reaction to the silences of archaeologists about the horrifying conditions of Iraqis and Iraqi children after their expression of concerns over the ‘relics of civilization’ in Iraq during the time of war. She made ‘an urgent request to Blue Fairy’ to turn the children of Iraq into stones. Because, according to her comments, the stones seemed more ‘valuable’ than the Iraqi children as those archaeological outbursts imply. At the end of her commentary she requested Iraqis to establish a ‘make-a-wish’ foundation that would make the wishes of all Iraqi parents’ and children come true. She asked the foundation to take all the Iraqi children to Museums and let them play with the ‘valuable stone objects’, let them destroy the objects if they wish. She said that it could have been these acts of predictable ‘cruelty’ (of course, according to the liberal definition) on these objects of heritage and civilization by which it would be possible to make those who define themselves as civilized, liberal and human to notice the children of Iraq.[51] Jeynep’s hope has come true in a sense. The Iraqis have destroyed and looted the museums. Yet, liberals are not noticing at all.

I would like to end (in other sense begin) by asking the question by taking inspiration from Patrick Mbunwe-Samba, an archaeologist from Cameroon, but in a quite different sense.[52] Do we, the people of non-West, need to destroy, restore and conserve ‘heritage’ in ways suggested by the liberal doctrines and institutions to imply that we are civilized, secular and liberals?

*This paper was sent to Martin Hall, the President of World Archaeological Congress (WAC) and other members of the executive committee of WAC on 18 June 2003 on the eve of its 5th congress at Washington DC with a forwarding letter by electronic mail.  The letter was – “Respected WAC Members and colleagues, On the eve of 5th Congress, I am very much disappointed, frustrated and outraged for the role and reaction of WAC on the US-British aggression in Iraq and the consequent damage and looting of archaeological materials. As I have come to know from the past activities of WAC, this oganization has been making contribution to the polemics on 'political and controversial issues' by promoting debates among the archaeologists from different political, cultural and religious traditions. As an archaeologist from a virtually peripheral country of 'third world' I disagree with the statement of Prof. Martin Hall after the destruction. The uncertainty and depression that engulfed us due to the role of western countries, US in particular, over the past years will be, I think,deepened by this statement. Moreover, in my opinion, this statement is an act of insult to the millions of people protesting against the attack in Iraq. As an expression of solidarity with the people who are fighting against the oppression in the world, especially in Iraq and Palestine, and as a gesture of protest against the role of intellectuals and academics, archaeologists in particular, I have written the paper attached herewith. Though I am not a member of WAC, I hope that this paper would be read and understood by my colleagues of the '(first) world'. They would not subvert and marginalize it as their statesmen usually prefer to do. Please, note that, this paper could be used and dispersed for any type of activism that tries to throw the brutal US regime out. Comments on my paper are very much expected. With regards to all, Swadhin Sen.” Prof. Hall replied with the usual manner on 20 June 2003 : “Dear Professor Sen, Thank you for your message, and for the copy of your paper, which is an important contribution to an important debate in these very difficult times in which we live. You can be assured that your views are taken seriously, and will be treated with the respect that they deserve. Sincerely, Martin Hall.” It is noteworthy that no other member has made any reply or coments till now and no changes have been noticed in the statement of Prof. Hall. The author acknowledges Rahnuma Ahmed, S. M. K. Ahsan, Mosfeka Begum, Subha Sen, Syfur Rahman and Afroza Khan for their contribution in different aspects of this paper. The article was published in Meghbarta (2006). Owing to change in the URL, the article is presently not available in the magazine’s archive.

[3] See the bill in detail on

[4] For example, click on

[5] The Daily Prothom Alo (Bangla newspaper) included many articles on this issue. These articles were downloaded from the net and translated from English, throughout the month of February-April 2003. I have taken the information from this source in particular.

[8] For some official declarations of Society for American Archaeology, please, surf through their web site: See also The Pratham Alo (Bangla Dalily), February-April 2003

[9] See post editorials in Prothom Alo of the month of March-April, 2003.

[10] For the concept of ‘problem-space’, see D. Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticisms after postcoloniality, New Jersey, pp. 1-10

[11] See for example, Bhikhu Parekh, Liberalism and Colonialism: A Critique of Locke and Mill, in Jan Neberjeer Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh eds. Decolonization of Imagination, London, 1995, pp. 1-17.

[12] For getting more elaboration on this particular issue of violence and redemption in reference to liberalism, see, T. Asad, What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like? and also, Reflections on Cruelty and Torture, in his “Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam”, Modernity, California, 2003, p. 56-62 specifically.

[13] In different enunciation the role of the idea of civilization have been elaborated. See, for example, H. Kucklick, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945, Cambridge, 1992, especially chapter 3. Also see, S. Hall and B. Gieben, eds. Formations of Modernity, Cambridge, 1992, especially chapter 6.

[14] T. Asad, Muslims as a “Religious Minority” in Europe, in his “Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity”, California, 2003, p. 169.

[15] Ibid., pp. 169-70 [Italics are added by the author].

[16] David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after postcoloniality, New Jersey, 1999, p. 5.

[17] J. Bahrani, Conjuring Mesopotamia: imaginative geography and a world past, in L. Meskell, ed. ‘Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, politics and heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East’, London, 1998, pp. 159-74.

[18] See for example, P. Hamilton, The Enlightenment and the Birth of Social Science, in S. Hall and B. Gieben eds. “ Formations of Modernity”, London, 1992, pp. 17-70. S. Hall, The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power in S. Hall and B. Gieben eds. “ Formations of Modernity”, London, 1992, pp. 275-332.

[19] J. Bahrani, pp. 164.

[20] Ibid., pp. 164

[21] L. Althusser, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, 1972, (trans. B. Brewster), London, 1982, p. 82.

[22] Ibid., 78.

[23] J. Bahrani, pp. 165.

[24] Ibid., pp. 165

[25] J. Fergusson, The Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored: An Essay in Ancient Assyrian and Persian Architecture, 1850, New Delhi, (1981 reprint), pp. 363-4.

[26] See J. Bahrani, p. 166.

[27] B. Lewis, The Shaping of the Modern Middle East, New York, 1994, p. 3.

[28] T. Asad, Muslims as a “Religious Minority” in Europe, in his “Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity”, California, 2003, p. 167.

[29] Ibid., 167-68.

[30] T. Asad, p. 168. [words in italics in the parenthesis are by author]

[31] A. Talbot, The looting of Baghdad’s museum and library: US government implicated in planned theft of Iraqi artistic treasures. World Socialist Web Site, 19 April, 2003 (

[32] See Ibid.

[33] See A. Talbot.

[34] Ibid.

[37] T. Asad, “Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity”, California, 2003, p. 8.

[39] T. Asad, Thinking about Agency and pain, in “Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity”, California, 2003, p. 74.

[40] See, for example, F. S. E. Kaplan, ed. Museums and the making of “ourselves”: the role of objects in national identity, Leicester, 1994. S. MacDonald, ed. The Politics of Display: museums, science, culture, London, 1999. E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London, 2000.

[41] J. Bahrani, p. 170. See also, J. Bahrani, ‘Assault and Abduction: the fate of the royal image in the Ancient Near East’, Art History, 18(3), 1995, pp. 363-82.

[42] J. Bahrani, 1998, p. 170.

[43] Ibid. p. 170.

[44] Cited in J. Bahrani, 1998, p. 170-1.

[45] See New York Times, 19 March, 2001.

[46] See H. Clere, The uneasy bedfellows: universality and cultural heritage, in R. Layton, P. G. Stone and J. Thomas, eds. ‘Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property’, London, 2001, pp. 22-29.

[47] T. Asad, Thinking about Agency and Pain, in his ‘Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity’, California, 2003, p. 74.

[48] Ibid. p. 74

[49] Ibid. p. 74

[50]Bhikhu Parekh, Liberalism and Colonialism: A Critique of Locke and Mill, in Jan Neberjeer Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh eds. ‘Decolonization of Imagination’, London, 1995, pp. 1-17

[51] J. Touffe, ‘An Urgent Request to Blue Fairy: Please, Turn these children into stones’. In WWW.

[52] P. Mbunwe-Samba, Should developing countries restore and conserve? In R. Layton, Peter G. Stone and J. Thomas, eds. ‘Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property’, London, 2001, pp. 30-41.


2 thoughts on “Essential Dilemma in the Liberal Understanding of Heritage: On recent looting and destruction of Museums in Iraq and its reactions*

  1. অনেক ধন্যবাদ স্যার। পড়লাম কিন্তু এখানে আপনা পোস্টের ব্যাকগ্রাউন্ডের জন্য চোখ ব্যাথা হয়ে যায়। এই টেম্পলেট একাডেমিক সাইটের জন্য না। এটকু চেস্টা করে এই ব্যাকগ্রাউন্ডটা বদলে নিয়েন। সাদা ব্যাকগ্রাউণ্ড কালো লেখা পড়তে সুবিধা।

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