When Salafists loot cultural assets, religious norms are also at stake

The looting of antiquities has proven to be an attractive source of income for radical Islamic groups in a country with a long and rich cultural legacy such as Syria, as it had been for some civilian, military and government actors earlier. These groups’ religious views also influence how they deal with objects belonging to Pagan and Christian cultures, writes historian Olivier Moos (Religioscope Institute) in a newly released report on Salafists and antiquities trafficking
in Syria by Religioscope (February 2020). The report focuses on Idleb Governorate (North-West Syria), where the Salafist armed group Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS) has been heavily involved in the looting of cultural assets. The former Islamic State (ISIS) had made headlines by destroying ancient monuments and artefacts. This did not prevent it from becoming a major actor in illegal trade of antiquities in Syria and Iraq, in spite of its marked dislike of statues. Salafists affiliated with HTS or active in the territories under its control may sometimes share similar views. Moos managed to monitor private Telegram groups promoting and selling Syrian artefacts, and one could read comments by participants reacting negatively to the sale of “idols.” When those are gold or silver statues, some say that they should be disfigured before the sale or sold for their intrinsic gold or silver value.

When it comes to stone statues, this is not feasible, since they would lose their value. Compromise can then be found insofar as they are properly taxed to the benefit of the Islamist group in control of the area where they were found. HTS has never encouraged the disfiguring of cultural assets, but strongly insists on registering sales and paying taxes on them. Besides issues raised by the iconoclastic zeal of Salafists, Moos has also observed among some of them fears about jinns (ethereal creatures referred to in the Quran), who are often reported to reside in pre-Islamic ruins or to protect buried treasures. While some looters claim that benevolent jinns help them to find good spots, other ones are afraid that jinns could harm them, and various kinds of advice are provided on Telegram accounts (e.g. reading the Quran for protection). But this seems to be an individual concern rather than one for Salafist organizations; there is no handbook being circulated about how to deal with jinns. From a religious angle, Moos’ observation that “compromise is not synonymous with hypocrisy,” even when groups such as HTS or ISIS make money from the sale of pre-Islamic artefacts seems crucial. “Religious motivations and economic incentives unavoidably affect and interact with each other.”

(The full report (40 pages) can be downloaded here)