Reformatting Space

Project image: 

Reformatting Space: The Self-Proclaimed “Islamic State’s” Strategy of Destroying Cultural Heritage and Committing Genocide

The self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (IS) is driven by a coherent and tightly defined ideology, claiming absolute hegemony to be the only valid representatives of Sunni Islam. The current fight in the Middle East is increasingly along the lines of sectarianism, a war between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. IS, as much as al-Qaeda, considers itself as a protection force for Sunni Muslims while ideologically enforcing the denial of any space for Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Jews, Druze, Yezidis, homosexuals, seculars or any other group in the region. A denial of space means to destroy non-Sunni places of worship and the annihilation of those who attend these public sites. This constitutes a genocide in which the respective memory, cultural heritage sites, holy places, sites of veneration, such as graveyards, tombs of holy men (awliya’), mosques, churches, or even trees (“tree of Moses”) that hold a spiritual meaning for local communities are systematically wiped out by the self-defined “Islamic State.”

The sites of veneration had been public places, protected by regimes that claimed to be somewhat secular, despite local sectarian policies such as the empowerment of Sunnis in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein or the exclusion of Christians and Kurds in al-Asad’s Syria.

Any territory conquered by IS is systematically cleansed of non-Sunni holy sites, destroying not only non-Muslim communities, but anything deemed as non-Sunni by IS standards – subsequently, Shiite mosques and tombs of “holy men” or “saints” (awliya’) are demolished and literally blown to obliteration. According to the worldview of IS, the “Caliphate” can only manifest in its true form when the conquered territory is purged of anyone and anything that violates the “oneness of God,” or tawhid in Arabic, which is the ultimate ratio of jihadist ideology.

This reformatting of territory in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya, Yemen, parts of Africa and elsewhere, is the perhaps irreversible destruction of heterogeneous religious communities and the end of pluralism and tolerance, in particular within the greater Middle East.  

Translating al-Qaeda doctrine (texts) into action of the “Islamic State” (videos)

The al-Qaeda (AQ) ideology has provided the theoretical framework that IS employs and exercises. While AQ has been pledging for decades to erode the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, IS was able to do so within few months – with proper tabloid-styled reporting of the event for their electronic English language magazine “Dabiq” as well as several videos in Arabic, English, Spanish and other languages. One may thus argue, the AQ ideology cannot be separated from IS, rather, IS is the recent evolution thereof. With the consolidation of territory within Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, local Arab traditions are subjected or forced to adapt to the application of its “state” ideology – based mainly on AQ ideologues and their rich theological corpus (mainly writings). This “theology of violence,” as Rüdiger Lohlker terms it, prescribes three conditions:
1.    Propagation and implementation of “tawhid”, or “oneness of god”, whereas “there is no god but god” as set in the Islamic creed. Jihadists hijack this principle by claiming to be the only ones professing the “oneness of god”. The raised right index finger symbolizes the “one god” and is used by Islamists and jihadists alike worldwide. The oneness of God is the fundamental monotheistic principle to not only establish a rule by God’s divine commandment, but rather set an identity as a muwahhid, who professes the worship and proper rituals for the one God as outlined in the Islamic creed and set by the flag of the Islamic State.
2.    Thus, the jihadists define themselves as muwahhidin, exercising the tawhid principle, in contradiction to the mushrikin, who neglect the monotheistic belief set and are rather loyal servants of dictatorial, secular or monarchist governments where individual leaders are hailed and praised in a similar fashion as God. Shirk (polytheism or associating partners next to god) defines anyone not adhering to the strict parameters of IS and specifically targets Alawites, Christians, Shiites and anyone else who violates the tawhid principle, including Sunni Muslims who are defined as “apostates” or “misguided.”
3.    IS, however, is a smart – and primary Arab movement – that invites Sunni Muslims to “revert,” thus repent (tawba), to true Sunni Islam by its definition. In Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, IS announces public repentance for any Sunni Muslim who has been misguided into serving as a policeman or soldier for the respective regime. This form of inclusion and social cohesion is a crucial factor for understanding IS’ ability to consolidate territory while ‘purifying’ the “Caliphate” by the systematic destruction of any space for non-Sunni Muslims and the removal of cultural heritage sites to claim absolute hegemony.

Theological Dimension

The first generation of al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula, at the time mainly in Saudi Arabia, legitimized the killing of non-Muslims as fulfilling prophet Muhammad’s alleged testimony to “expel the mushrikin from the Arab Peninsula.” Almost a decade later, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” in Syria and elsewhere invests great lengths to document and showcase the destruction of museums in Hatra (Iraq), the demolition of temples in Palmyra (Tadmur, Syria) or the bulldozing of Shiite and Sufi sites in Derna (Libya) by using the same scriptures employed by al-Qaeda before.

The foremost definition of the mushrikin is as described by the jihadist ideologue Abu Ahmad ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Masri in his 2009 treatise “Stance on the Positions regarding Expelling the mushrikin from the Arab Peninsula” (Waqfat ma al-waqfat hawla “ikhraj al-mushrikin min jazirat al-'arab”):

“What is the intention with the mushrikin? They are not Muslims. That is what the prophet – peace and blessing be upon him – said just as Omar – may God be pleased with him – bequeathed:
“To expel the Jews and Christians from the Arab Peninsula until only Muslims are there! (Muslim 3313; Abu Dawud 2635; al-Tirmidhi 1532). And likewise what he said in the hadith of A’isha – may God be pleased with her:
“Do not permit two religions on the Arab Peninsula” (Ahmad 25148; al-Tabari fi l-awsat 1116).”

The “Islamic State” is reformatting the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The systematic genocide against non-Sunnis and the wiping out of the respective cultural heritage sites and holy places is nothing but a consequent removal of religious pluralism and tolerance. Syria had been the most tolerant country with the most heterogeneous society in the entire MENA region. The loss of Syria and the fortification of IS in Iraq and Syria with thriving franchises in Egypt and Libya, to name a few, will haunt the world for decades – if not more.


Nico Prucha holds a PhD in Arabic Language and Literature and Terrorism from the University of Vienna, Austria. He is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at the Department for War Studies, King’s College London. He recently joined the ICSR after being awarded the VOX-Pol's Research Fellowship under its Researcher Mobility Programme, and is currently researching Viral Aspects of Jihadism: The Lingual and Ideological Basis of Online Propaganda and the Spill Over to Non-Arabic Networks. His work for VOX-Pol at the ICSR also includes establishing a lexicon of Arabic keywords frequently used within Arabic and non-Arabic propaganda videos and writings.

Prucha’s work focuses on the analyses and deciphering of primary Arabic-language jihadist propaganda content on- and offline. He specializes in jihadi online activities related to Syria, Iraq and the organized opposition. Main aspects of his research cover the textual and audio-visual content of jihadist activity online and how the ideology in parts morphs from Arabic to English and German language clusters. Prucha’s research interests also lie in analyzing the blend of languages and elements employed in social media strategies by groups such as the “Islamic State” to incite and recruit, and the lingual and theological analysis of extremist Sharia law interpretation of hostage taking and executions, and how videos as well as social media outlets convey these acts.

Additional Information:
New York Times article "From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State"
YouTube trailer to the film Rahmat Islam Nusantara (The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam)