The criticism of Trump´s threat to hit cultural sites in Iran is not sustainable

23:30 by Cornelius Holtorf

When Trump recently threatened to target cultural sites in Iran in future military attacks, the outcry of heritage organizations around the world was enormous.

Attacking cultural targets is not only against international law but also against deeply felt values that separate the realm of culture from the realm of legitimate military action. It has been pointed out that the US government does not have major disagreements with the Iranian people (and their culture) but merely with the politics of the Iranian government.

Similar sentiments have been rehearsed many times before, for example when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and, more recently, when the Islamic State destroyed various ancient structures of Palmyra in Syria in 2015.

When cultural sites are targeted in military conflicts their sustainability is threatened. Hence the opposition of all the many organizations that agree on the importance of culture and cultural sites for people in Iran as elsewhere. But the question is whether the dominant understandings of culture that are reflected in the widespread criticism of Trump’s threat are sustainable either.

There are two problems in particular with the campaign to safeguard Iranian cultural sites. The first problem is that it essentializes the Iranian people. It assumes that there is only one culture in Iran uniting all its citizens. However, in reality people have different cultural preferences in Iran as much as anywhere else. It is not appropriate to assume that all 80 million Iranians share the same (one assumes traditional) culture when this is neither empirically likely to be the case nor what many Iranians themselves may want. Clearly, we need to recognize and indeed promote that people in Iran live their lives with different cultural preferences. But it is unclear whether in practice we are campaigning to safeguard all cultural preferences in Iran or only some.

The second problem is defending cultural sites in Iran essentializes Iranian culture. It assumes that culture in Iran is necessarily distinct from culture in the US or anywhere else. In reality however, very many people anywhere in the world share by now much more culture with each other than what divides them. They may have different mother tongues and live in different homes but they like to watch many of the same movies, listen to much of the same music, enjoy many of the same video games, tv programs, and sports, even consume some of the same food and beverages, etc. So those who insist that Iranian cultural sites must be saved, what do they mean: Iranian digital infrastructure? Iranian movie theaters? Iranian sports arenas and shopping malls? Even the biggest religions have global distributions.

When Trump threatened to target cultural sites, he intended to provoke Iranian politicians and presumably the entire world. In doing so he also meant to reaffirm the belief that Iranians are culturally distinct from Americans (and others), and that all Iranians share one joint culture. These are not sustainable assumptions if you have faith in cultural freedom for everybody and if you are aware of the many cultural preferences that today unite so many people in the world with each other.

Trump may not like to see that most Iranians really are in many ways like all of us. Let us be free to disagree with him on this point, too.

Cornelius Holtorf
In 2017, Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, was awarded a UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. This is one of eight Chairs in Sweden, and the only one within the cultural sector. Cornelius Holtorf, holder of the UNESCO Chair, alongside Anders Högberg and Sarah May, will continue to generate ideas through this forum.

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