Recently, a series of investigative reports in the New York Times by foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi has prompted acclaim by most and criticism by a few for her use of abandoned documents recording the non-military activities of ISIS in their occupied territories. Interestingly, some of the loudest criticisms of the Times’ publication of this original source material have come from The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Committee for Academic Freedom.
After ISIS abandoned the city of Mosul, in Iraq, they left behind thousands of documents from their time as occupiers of the city. Callimachi travelled to the city in 2017 to collect those documents, in order to understand how ISIS had held onto the region for so long. These papers record the administrative and bureaucratic activities that sustained an army of terrorists and helped to keep their conquered territories in order and under control. Academic analysis has focused less on the nature of the information and its usefulness in understanding ISIS, and more on how the papers have been used by the Times and who really owns them and should have possession. Some critics have asserted that only the current Iraqi government has the right to define the “Iraqi narrative,” a not-so-oblique alternative descriptor for “the history of Iraq.”
The information Callimachi collected has overturned false claims about ISIS’ funding sources repeatedly made in the press in the past (including in the New York Times). To give an example hugely pertinent to cultural property issues, these false claims – that the sale in looted antiquities from Iraq and Syria brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to ISIS’ coffers – continue to be used to establish public policy hostile the collecting of ancient art of all kinds. Heavily publicized but unsubstantiated claims about the art trade have resulted in blanket bans on the importation of Middle Eastern antiquities to the US and other countries, and have been repeatedly cited in attacks on the character and practices of antiquities dealers, collectors, and museums. Callimachi’s discoveries provide new evidence of the groundlessness of claims that the antiquities trade can be blamed for funding terrorism.
No other journalist or academic, in or outside of Iraq, has done the work that Callimachi did to bring the facts about ISIS’ administration and funding to light.
The Middle East Studies Association Committee for Academic Freedom argued that although Callimachi was given permission by the Iraqi officials she traveled with to take the documents, the people who gave her permission were not the proper authorities, and that removal of documents from Iraq is contrary to Iraqi law.
It is true that Iraq has a domestic law on antiquities, the Law No. 55 of 2002 for the Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq. This law prohibits removal not only of what is commonly thought of as “antiquities” but also has a classification called “Heritage Material,” which consists of “the movable and immovable property, less than 200 years of age, possessing a historical, national, religious and artistic value.” And this law states, under Article 18, that a Heritage Manuscript, although allowed to be sold, should not be published without permission of the Antiquity Authority. Reading further in Iraqi heritage law, it is clear that a manuscript, under the law at least, means an antique manuscript. (See the IFAR Country Summary for Iraq, a subscription resource.) The text of the law gives no clue whether recent administrative documents from ISIS warehouses fit the category of “Heritage Material.”
More alarming, is that the Middle East Studies Association Committee for Academic Freedom appears to be arguing that not only do the documents Callimachi was given belong to the government of Iraq, but also that her actions are ethically and morally wrong because the government of Iraq – and the scholars it approves of – are the only legitimate arbiters and narrators of the history of Iraq.
MESA states: “removing these documents from Iraq, with no clear plans to return them to a repository that will be accessible to all Iraqis, once again empowers outsiders to unduly influence, or even control, the narration of Iraq’s history.” (CPN’s emphasis.)
There is more at stake here than the reputation of the antiquities market, or the details of ISIS’ funding system; the dispute over these documents raises challenges to journalists’ and historians’ mission to report the truth, without fear or favor.
ISIS Funding Comes from Taxes, Not Oil or Art
After ISIS abandoned Mosul in 2017, Rukmini Callimachi made 5 separate trips to the region to collect the records from the city’s time under Islamic State rule. After working with outside experts to verify their authenticity and analyzing each of the 15,000 documents, the New York Times’ team came to a surprising conclusion: “It was daily commerce and agriculture — not petroleum — that powered the economy of the caliphate.”
According to Callimachi’s article The ISIS Files, ISIS had created a highly efficient bureaucracy by taking the existing infrastructure and its employees and compelling them by threats of violence to return to their regular work and do their jobs. In addition, they instituted a tax, fee, rental and fine system on almost every aspect of daily life, meticulously recording every transaction. The surviving records describe “how the militants monetized every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled.”
ISIS’s strict interpretation of Islam gave them grounds to confiscate all manner of real estate and personal property from non-Sunni inhabitants of the occupied regions, chiefly Shi’a Muslims and Christians. The property they confiscated was sold or rented to benefit the Islamic State’s income stream – or given to ISIS fighters as rewards.
The United States-led coalition against ISIS had long operated under the assumption that the Islamic State was funded by oil. As part of their strategy, oil installations were routinely bombed. Callimachi’s work has revealed why that strategy failed, “The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.”
Although one of the documents found, which listed some new administrative departments created by ISIS, mentioned one dedicated to looting antiquities, the remainder of the documents paint a picture of an army funded chiefly by the appropriation of non-Sunni homes and the imposition of heavy taxes on all economic activity and private property. Callimachi’s article makes no mention of any of ISIS’ income coming from black-market antiquities deals.
Comments on Callimachi’s reporting in her New York Times articles have been overwhelmingly positive – with a few notable exceptions.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Objects
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is a non-profit organization, whose mission is to support scholarship on the Middle East, protect and promote independent research, and encourage cross-cultural interaction, understanding, and intellectual collaboration.
MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom’s stated goals are to “foster the free exchange of knowledge as a human right and to inhibit infringements on that right by government restrictions on scholars.” MESA does this by “monitor[ing] infringements on academic freedom on the Middle East and North Africa world wide. Such infringements include governmental refusal to allow scholars to conduct scholarly research, publish their findings, deliver academic lectures, and travel to international scholarly meetings.”
These are all worthwhile goals, particularly in light of the consistent oppression of academics in Middle Eastern countries over the last thirty years. Matthew Schwitzer’s 2013 Al Jazeera article The Destruction of Iraq’s intellectuals discusses the shocking decline of academic institutions in that country since the imposition of international sanctions in 1990. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was some hope that the universities would be restored, but according to Schwitzer, conditions for intellectuals went from bad to worse. Universities were looted, libraries were burned, and professors were increasingly restricted in what they could teach, some even killed to keep them silent.
However, this MESA Committee on Academic Freedom is now, confusingly, objecting to Callimachi’s study of the ISIS documents. They feel that Callimachi should not have taken the documents from the country, and that her use of the documents for journalistic investigation infringes on the right of the Iraqi government and Iraqi scholars to be the arbiters of Iraqi history. This raises two key questions, one about access to research materials and the other about censorship by governments.
For the sake of a free and accurate press, and for academic freedom, researchers must have access to original sources. It is a journalistic maxim – and an academic one as well – that you are only as good as your sources. Callimachi’s article – whose findings impact not only our understanding of recent Iraqi history, but will likely shape future strategies in the fight against terrorism and insurgencies – could not have been written without the documents she has been criticized for appropriating.
Allowing any government, whether democratic or dictatorial, stable or tottering, to assume control of scholarly research has historically proven to be disastrous for the freedom of its people. Nevertheless, MESA argues that “representatives of the Iraqi state, and certainly not foreign journalists … should control the disposition of any documents.” In war zones, surely the first priority should be to secure any documents safely, and to get quick use of the information they contain, not to apply for permission from a government bureau before undertaking standard journalistic investigation.
MESA’s letter also made the point that the publication of images of many of these documents, without redacting the names and personal information of the Iraqis mentioned, could endanger human lives. It does appear that the New York Times chose carefully which documents to publish online, and which to withhold from immediate public view. Caution is warranted, but MESA’s argument, that Iraq will protect its citizens while the Times will not, is a bad one.
The Iraqi government has long condoned through inaction the oppression, torture and extrajudicial killings of its citizens by various police, military and paramilitary groups. The notion that Iraqi ‘collaborators’ with ISIS will somehow be safer from reprisals if the Iraq government had possession of the documents is absurd.
The whole world has benefited from the work of foreign researchers studying the histories of other countries, other periods, and other cultures. Certainly academics can criticize the method through which information was brought to light but they should not restrict the interpretation or who can interpret the information. MESA’s position on this matter seems directly contrary to its stated purpose: to “foster the free exchange of knowledge as a human right.”
Access to researchers is crucial. Although the New York Times has said they are “working to make the trove of ISIS documents publicly available to researchers, scholars, Iraqi officials and anyone else looking to better understand the Islamic State,” one of MESA’s points is well taken. If Iraqi access to the trove is not ensured through digitization or some other means of access, it will leave a gap in the understanding of Iraq’s history. MESA has noted that other U.S. institutions have taken archival material from Iraq for safekeeping and have not yet returned the material or made it available online. The Times promises to do a better job, and all eyes will be on it.
Some US holders of documents, particularly the US military, have failed to provide access to researchers. Others, such as the Hoover Institution’s collection of Baath Party archives are fully accessible to scholars, and because of their political nature would not likely have been made available if held in Iraq. Nor has Iraq a positive history of digitizing historical documents – or granting access to international scholars.
MESA’s letter also fails to note the Iraqi government’s history of denying rights of access to scholars because they are viewed as political enemies. For decades, this has been the fate of Jewish scholars who wanted to study artifacts held in Iraq. It also fails to mention the example of the treatment of the Iraqi Jewish Archives, which consisted of documents of ordinary life as well as religious texts that were seized one midnight in the early 1980s from a Baghdad synagogue housing them for safekeeping from anti-Jewish forces. These archives were rescued by U.S. forces from a flooded basement in a building of the Iraqi secret police. They were brought to the US, conserved, and digitized by the US National Archives. There are no Jews left in Iraq, but its government wants these papers back, supposedly because the government wants them to “tell the history of Iraq.” Are such promises to be believed, when past promises to Iraq’s forcibly expelled Jewish community have been broken every time? Will Iraq’s government honestly answer the questions, “Why are there no more Jews in Iraq?” “What happened to them?”, when the true answers are so shameful?
How did the media get ISIS’ funding so wrong?
In a Marketplace® edited transcript of a conversation between host Kai Ryssdal and Rukmini Callimachi, The ISIS regime you’ve never seen, Kai poses the question: “How did we get the financing so wrong and think that it was all oil?”
Callimachi responded: “It’s just that this idea of the black market oil, I think it really captured the imagination. It seemed to fit what people thought of this group. You know, this big, bad group that is doing criminal things. So it was black market oil smuggling, it was ransoms for hostages. People were obsessed with these exotic forms of financing. And in fact, it was just something much more mundane: It was the dirt under their feet, the people that they controlled who were forced to pay taxes and the commerce that those people generated, which in turn was also taxed.”
The same is true of the exotic and ill-founded claim that ISIS was funded by selling antiquities. It may simply be the power of repetition, and the lure of a juicy story, that has led to the wide acceptance of the assertion that oil and antiquities are funding ISIS, without any hard and fast evidence. Once a seemingly creditable article cited an outrageous (and therefore exciting) number for the ISIS profits made off antiquities, it was probably inevitable that so many followed.
See a major report by Cultural Property News, Bearing False Witness: The Media, ISIS and Antiquities, December 1, 2017, another Cultural Property News’ article Facts on Terrorism and the Art Trade August 24, 2017, and also an independent report commissioned by the Dutch National Police, Central Investigation Unit, War Crimes Unit entitled Cultural Property, War Crimes and Islamic State which challenge and discount the media’s dominant ‘antiquities looting funds terrorism’ narrative.
These more credible analyses have largely debunked the myth that the antiquities trade funded ISIS. Now, thanks to Rukmini Callimachi, we know the real key to ISIS’ financial success came through the efficient and brutal management of their taxation bureaucracy, something we might never have known if the documents had stayed in Iraq. Callimachi’s article provides another refutation of the false claims of ties between terrorists and large-scale antiquities smuggling, and a stirring examples of the importance of a free press and of scholarly research, unfettered by government restrictions or bureaucratic repression of primary source material.