Members of IS destroying world heritage in Mosul, 2015. Image: Youtube


I presented this paper at the Oxford Graduate Political Theory Conference 2015 “Political Theory at the Margins” (Podcast of the panel available here: and at the Annual Conference of the Society for Intercultural Philosophy 2016 “The Strength, Power, and Force of Images from an Intercultural Perspective”. A German version of it was published in Polylog (#38), Zeitschrift für interkulturelles Philosophieren.

Set in the context of the deliberate destruction of so called world heritage by IS and the international outcry that such actions provoke, this paper seeks to get to the core of the different registers of rage that are at stake: Why and by whom is the destruction of these objects condemned? And why does IS see the destruction of these “idols” as a necessity? –In order to point out the prior assumptions that underly the claim for the protection of the artefacts on the one hand and the will to destroy them on the other hand, I want to confront the debate around Iraq's world heritage with Saba Mahmood's perspective on the Danish cartoon controversy. Drawing on Mahmood's analysis, I argue that IS' religious justification for the destruction of the artefacts remains incomprehensible to every one following the semiotic ideology, according to which signifier and signified are only arbitrarily linked. Hence, IS' iconoclastic acts tend to be read as a political show of hyper-piety. I claim that this view on IS' destruction of the ancient artefacts fails to recognize that those acts are –at least to some extent– motivated by the conviction that the objects actually exercise a misleading force, corrupting the relationship to God. –The demand for the protection of “world heritage”, on the other side, is rooted in a particular way of relating to the past, based on historiography and on the need for a narrative of identity, which gained ground with the emergence of the national imaginary. Given the fact that the outcry for the protection of the Iraqi artefacts exceeds the national level, I raise the question in how far those objects become the fetishes of a “global self”, which is, in fact, torn between the supposedly universal value of heritage and the valorisation of cultural patrimony. As I will demonstrate, the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage by IS in Iraq complicates the question of ownership as it puts into question the legal prioritization of cultural patrimony by the international community. Thus, it points to the blind spot of the debate: what does the “world-ness” in “world heritage” actually imply?

© Johanna Maj Schmidt 2020