Opinion: Struggling with a personal response to ISIS

Independent thinking comes down to trusting your own capacity for an original, personal opinion. For me, it is worth struggling with ourselves when it comes to important subject matter. This is so that solutions have a chance to springing from a place of authenticity and purpose. For me, this is an essential part of offering a responsible perspective and is quintessential liberal.

This video is of ISIS fighters destroying ancient relics. Artifacts that were housed in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. My initial response would have been similar to most people I’d imagine; shock, abhorrence, alarm and repulsion. There is violence in this reaction. But it was a violence that feels as if deliberately enticed by what I was watching.

Now, I haven’t watched the other videos released by ISIS. I have seen clips however and I remember noticing the remarkable sophistication of the material, the editing, music and scale of production. They are polished, these videos. Admittedly this is an odd thing to point out but I believe something significant has happened since ISIS has come into prominence in Syria and Iraq; it is that the language has changed. The channels with which movements like ISIS roll out propaganda have gone beyond the 24 news cycle. These videos are a nightmare cut and packaged for the social stream. Working in the technology sector in London myself, this hit close to home.

The violence I felt after watching this video would be understandable given the destruction. It is all too easy to turn initial reactions like these into justifications for some form of retribution. It is harder to move beyond it toward a rational response. So what to do other than to seek out more knowledge, find opinions that you wouldn’t normally agree with and weigh them up against what you feel instinctively. In the days since, I began thinking about why these videos are released in the first place. Why else but to seduce us into hatred and compel us toward conflict and yet another cycle?

Inherent curiosity, self-sought and entirely mysterious at times, often leads to uncomfortable revelations. On many occasions if the subject is worth thinking about it’s because there may be more to what you believe about a certain subject matter than your initial response would reveal. This, perhaps, is where curiosity comes from in a sense; a part of your mind that nags and prods at your conscience in order to bring to the surface something real and of value. I think this may be all the more important when we consider the sophistication of the media machine behind movements like ISIS. Manipulation works, and whether we like it or not we are all susceptible. All the more reason in my mind to struggle with offering genuine thoughts about what we should do.

For me, this was difficult. I have come to the uneasy conclusion that some form of military intervention, a policy I would normally resist vehemently, should be considered given the argument that while ‘taking on’ Al Qaeda was always a misnomer, ISIS is in large part a territorial army and as such could be defeated. Whether a militaristic response would come in the form of a broad multi-national coalition or whether the Iraqi national army is capable of defeating them with help, I don’t know. What I’m far surer about is that we are unlikely to see the same degree of public outcry against militarism as was the case in 2003.

It is a sad and galling opinion to have come to. This video upsets me deeply and it upsets me more that I’ve come to adopt a position where yet more destruction is an inevitable outcome. The small comfort I have is that it’s an opinion that was hard won and that my liberalism finds great strength in struggling with decisions that ought to be struggled with.


* Guy Gunaratne is a Lib Dem member and a technology entrepreneur living between London and Berlin. Previously he worked as a video journalist covering human rights stories from conflict areas around the world.

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  • I am currently coming to the end of a PhD in Syrian and Iraqi archaeology; for the past 4 years I have watched the very things I’m studying be destroyed, almost as I study them, by people who would happily kill me in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, if we ever crossed paths. Wrestling with reactions like this is something that takes a lot of thought. For me, I have come to the conclusion that destructions like this amount to a crime against humanity just as severe as any of the barbaric things Daesh have done to the people living where they hold power (these antiquities are literally irreplaceable, after all). But I do wonder whether a military response would be exactly what Daesh are trying to encourage. Issues around defence aside (for the record, I do think the defence budget should increase, but that the arms industry needs a good flushing out to say the least), a military response would need to be handled extremely delicately in order to avoid inflaming and hardening opinion in Iraq and Syria, to avoid playing into Daesh’s hands, and to avoid inflicting further damage on the cradle of civilisation’s antiquities.

  • Daesh in its current form are only going to be destroyed by force. The longer it takes the harder it will be as well.

    It is argued that above all “Islamism” is an idea so it can’t be defeated except intellectually. I don’t buy that, because the whole basis OF the idea is of the imposition of their interpretation of God’s will though force That is its great power but also its weakness, paradoxically.

    If they win God has willed it so, if they are defeated he has willed it also and they have to give up. Our job is to make sure God wills them to be defeated and we won’t do that by sitting on our hands.

  • David Cooper 2nd Mar '15 - 5:01pm

    @ Guy Gunaratne

    Don’t get too worked up. According to Channel 4 news, these were mostly plaster cast replicas, see::-


    See for example 20 seconds into your video where reinforced steel supports are visible. It is certainly not worth going to war about this.

    The good news is that the originals are in safe hands, in western museums, where they are treated with respect. I do hope that fashionable demands for them to be returned to their place of origin will be ignored.

  • Martin Land 2nd Mar '15 - 8:49pm

    And perhaps if Greece had kept the Elgin Marbles the Germans would now be forcing them to sell to reduce their deficit.

  • With war there is destruction and killing. Daesh believe the second coming of Jesus is imminent.Prepare for the final battle. It would be a mistake for western ground troops to be involved.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '15 - 4:18am

    A good article Guy. I could write an essay on this subject, but I’ll just keep it short and say we need to recognise that we must not turn our anger against normal Muslims if we are to defeat ISIS and other extremist groups.

    We also need to rebuild the reputation of the British Armed Forces. Soldiers risk their lives on operations in order to protect the innocent and it needs to be recognised. We must also protect them properly.


  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd Mar '15 - 10:49am

    @ simon,
    So you will be getting off your hands and going out there to fight them will you simon?
    @ Guy,
    Historically important artefacts get smashed and damaged for all sorts of reasons.. Unlike people they can be put back together. You have obviously come to your conclusion after a great deal of thought and heart searching. It is something many of us have had to do when we would much rather get on with our daily lives unaware of what barbarity is being inflicted on innocent men women and children.

    I however, have reached a different conclusion, that is, that the escalating barbarity is a manifestation of the increasing frustration of evil people who want to manipulate us into sending in troops. This would then strengthen their warped narrative that it is the evil west entering ‘our lands’ to kill Muslims.

    Which of us is right? I don’t know, but I am holding on steadfastly to my belief.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Mar '15 - 11:01am

    Jayne Mansfield
    “Which of us is right? I don’t know, but I am holding on steadfastly to my belief.”

    Well, I don’t know who’s right either, but for what little it’s worth, I’m pretty sure it’s you!

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Mar '15 - 11:04am

    “If they win God has willed it so, if they are defeated he has willed it also and they have to give up. ”
    Oh, if only it were that simple. A little look at history should tell you that bigots and fundamentalists of whatever stripe never believe that they lost because they were wrong and God wanted the other side to ultimately triumph. If they win, it is because God is on their side. If they lose, it is because God is using the infidel to punish them for not being zealous enough. There’s simply no end to it that way.

  • “…evil people who want to manipulate us into sending in troops….”

    Quite right, Jayne Mansfield.

  • @ Malcolm

    “There’s simply no end to it that way.”

    Having taken a cursory look at history as a result of your injunction I notice that military force HAS been an” end to it” sometimes. Charles Martel’s victory saving northern Europe for Christendom, for example, the conquest of Anadalus from the Moors, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna in 1683. They seemed to realise that God didn’t will it on those occasions, although never say never they may have another go I suppose. If they do we need to fight them again, sadly.

    (On another subject I was right about the debates, wasn’t I?)

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Mar '15 - 1:10pm

    Don’t be ridiculous, simon. I’m not saying military victories are impossible, only that fundamentalists don’t stop believing they are right because you force them to, militarily, as you claimed. (Haven’t you noticed, by the way, that those military victories are amongst those that modern Islamists today reject and seek to undo? That hardly supports your theory that ” if they are defeated he has willed it also and they have to give up”.)

    Anyway, I think the fact that your examples are all about European “Christendom” defeating Islamic states tells us enough about what really motivates you.

  • @Jayne Mansfield “Historically important artefacts get smashed and damaged for all sorts of reasons.. Unlike people they can be put back together. ”

    That’s a dangerous misconception. No, they can’t. Once a piece of history is destroyed, it’s gone forever. Look at the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Oh, no, wait, you can’t, because the Taliban utterly destroyed them.

    If the cathedrals, castles, and monuments of Great Britain and Ireland were being systematically dynamited, would you be so cavalier?

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd Mar '15 - 2:23pm

    @ David-1,
    Bad example. The reason the reconstruction of the Buddah’s of Bamiyan has been held up is because of a dispute between UNESCO and the German branch of the International Council on Monuments and sites .

    In fact, there are two schools of thought. The differences lies between those who think that it is better to leave the monuments as they are , adding to the story they tell, ( the destruction by the Taliban reminded local people that they were Buddhas and the story that lay behind them) or compete reconstruction to their original state. . Up until recently the idea of keeping them in their seemed to be the dominant one.

    When it comes to being cavalier, I admit to showing different degrees of concern, and currently my greatest concern lies with what is happening to people not monuments.

  • A reconstruction is never the same as the original monument, in æsthetics, in meaning, in symbolic or informational value.

    If you like, you can turn it around: individual people are endlessly renewed, but there is no way to bring back the historical monuments and documents once destroyed. It is apples and oranges. Trying to take the moral high ground by privileging human lives over the historical memory of the human race is a foolish game. The same people who are barbaric destroyers of history are also savage murderers: hostility to the past is the same as hatred of the present.

  • David-1 3rd Mar ’15 – 1:30pm
    “If the cathedrals, castles, and monuments of Great Britain and Ireland were being systematically dynamited…”

    If members of the CofE want to have their cathedrals and their empty churches that it is up to them, just so long as they pay for them.    The rest of us should not have to subsidise the extravagant waste of resources that is the CofE property portfolio.

    As for the orginal topic under discussion — it should be remembered that the destruction of buildings and precious items from the past is not new.  Wahhabi inspired fanatics have been doing this in Saudi for at least 200 years.    
    See — 

    Do those promoting war now recommend the invasion of Saudi Arabia?

  • “Anyway, I think the fact that your examples are all about European “Christendom” defeating Islamic states tells us enough about what really motivates you.”

    When I travel to modern France or Spain, yes I am pleased that Charles Martel and El Cid won those battles, and I find they are both quite popular with the French and Spanish too. In fact El Cid is a national hero, Martel a little less well known.

    The fact that you, with your cultural relativism, seem to wish that they had lost, or at best are embarrassed by their decisive victories tells us all we need to know of the failure of modern liberalism.

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd Mar '15 - 5:40pm

    @ David-1,
    The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas IS a history of the human race which is why there is such a dispute on whether to leave them as they are or to reconstruct them.

    One of the greatest acts of destruction of historical buildings and artefacts in this country took place during the Reformation. If you want to look at a more recent example of the destruction of our cathedrals and how I would feel about them, the destruction of Coventry Cathedral and the people living around it, by the Nazi’s, would be a good starting point.

    In answer to you personal question on my feelings. When I have visited Coventry Cathedral it is to sit in quiet contemplation of those who lost their lives AND to wonder at the sensitivity of Jacob Epstein’s St Michael subduing the devil,, the magnificence of the John Piper window,etc. They are symbols of the indomitability of the human spirit and the way that it can soar above the material.

    Anyway, back to the subject of the thread…..

  • Guy Gunaratne 3rd Mar '15 - 7:36pm

    Thank you for reading everyone. @Eddie Sammon – agree whole heartedly. This is why I’d rather discourse be civil, incredibly difficult to do in these cases. Difficult to write about also. @Jayne Mansfield Yes, I’m afraid you are right in that sending in our troops would be a manifestation of their agenda. My concern though is that options seem limited to militarism even if this ostensibly means aiding local armies or some other. @David Wright – good question and yes, I’ve been watching. @Jayne Mansfield and @David-1 – on monuments and people: I think it was this video of the Mosul Museum that stirred me to write but no, undoubtably it is the suffering of the people, the images, the body count.
    Another side to this too, one that is incredibly worrying I think and one that I see around the tech scene is that there seems to be and overt kind of perverse theatricality about the way ISIS material is made filtered out. Particularly dangerous to consider this because of how it finds it’s way into the hands of those that might see these people somehow compelling and exciting among young Muslim communities. The sophistication around their video and social media campaigns and the myriad way their material is pushed out is truly something unprecedented and is a worrying sign going forward. This seems to be a darker narrative that followed the other brighter one we saw a few years ago with the ‘Twitter/Facebook Revolutions’ in Egypt. Today I see they sent death threats to Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, for closing the offending ISIS accounts. A war on many fronts.

  • David Cooper 3rd Mar '15 - 8:55pm

    @Jayne Mansfield
    The reason you can’t see the Buddhas of Bamiyan is because they were destroyed by followers of Islam. Only the most desperate Islamic apologist would suggest it is the fault of the UNESCO reconstruction program.

    I must say, given this video of Islamic Archaeology 101 as taught in Mosul, rebuilding them sounds rather a waste of money.

  • My point is only that historical artifacts are unique and irreplaceable. If information about them is carefully recorded and widely disseminated, we lose less if they are destroyed; but we still lose a great deal. A photograph or a plaster cast can never replace the original. And many artifacts have never been adequately documented, and some have not been documented at all.

    You cannot equate the creation or preservation of artistic and historical treasures with their destruction. They are not the same at all. To gaze at the empty holes where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood is only to remember the power of ignorance and hatred. It tells us nothing about the great civilisations that once spread over that region, and creates a collective amnesia; maybe, even, convincing some that the current state of deprivation and backwardness is a necessary and unavoidable one. Those monuments spoke to a different truth.

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd Mar '15 - 11:00pm

    @ David Cooper,
    Where are these desperate Islamic apologists of which you speak? Has anyone on here denied that the Buddhas of Bamiyan were not blown up by the fanatical Taliban after, (not being the brightest buttons in the tin,) realising that its difficult trying to knock down statues that are carved into a cliff. However, I think that if you check your facts, you will find that many followers of Islam tried to prevent the destruction of the statues, so I would be wary of making generalisations if I were you

    The argument between David-1 and myself is based on whether they can be reconstructed or not. They can be, but the argument that is current is whether they should be on not.

    @ David -1.
    ‘ A reconstruction is never the same as the original monument, in aesthetics, in meaning, in symbolic or informational value.’

    Although a World Heritage Site, I have never visited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, I don’t think that If I had I would have felt disappointed on any of the levels that you mention, when I found that the original painted faces and clothing had worn away over time, just as I am not disappointed when I see the gleaming white Acropolis devoid of its original, and according to my aesthetic sense, gaudy paintwork.

    I wonder what your feelings are regarding the original David by Michelangelo given the repairs that have been necessary ? Do you really appreciate the aesthetics, any meaning or any symbolism less, and do you really feel that it has less informational value that the form had before the arm was (accidentally) broken in three places during an anti- Medici rebellion or indeed before the form suffered later damage .

    Quite frankly, I do not find it find it a shocking revelation that a bunch of fanatical, sadistic misogynistic psychopaths are also philistines who do not appreciate art, so why would seeing a video of them smashing ancient artefacts change my viewpoint on whether this country should send in troops, which is what I think they are trying to goad us into?

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