There’s little argument in the West against the evidence that ISIS, the apocalyptic organization that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, does evil. In its campaign in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has killed thousands–most of them unarmed civilians or captives publicly and brutally executed to illustrated the group’s commitment to its own fanatical brand of Islam. It has used systematic rape and sex slavery as a tool to terrorize women in the regions it controls, and has made a policy of either stealing and selling the priceless artifacts of the Middle East or destroying them as pagan symbols of apostasy–never mind that many of the artifacts it has destroyed predate Islam. In short, ISIS represents Islam in the same way that the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church represent Christianity.
ISIS’s depredations, combined with the five-year civil war in Syria and the general instability that has marked the Middle East since the American invasion and the Arab Spring, have forced millions of people to flee their homes, many to Turkey and Jordan, others to Europe.
But not everyone has fled from the areas controlled by ISIS. Just as every disaster and war reveals those who are willing to stand and fight for their neighbors or for their beliefs, this one has brought brave people into the spotlight. And just as in previous wars, those who stand against ISIS do so in spite of the likelihood that they will die for their courage.
Khaled al-Asaad was one such. When ISIS took the ancient city of Palmyra in May of last year, al-Asaad chose to stay. The curator and director of the archaeological excavations in Palmyra and the museum there, he was the one who knew the ancient city best–and the one best able to protect its antiquities from ISIS. Before the city fell, he moved many of its statues to safe locations in Syria, and after it fell, he refused to lead ISIS to further treasures.
His refusal cost him his life. In August, after holding him captive for more than a month, ISIS cut off his head–the group’s favorite method of execution–and put his body on display among the ruins of the ancient city he loved. And went on to enthusiastically destroy many of the millennia-old artifacts and structures he gave his life to protect.
We don’t often think of academics as courageous. Indiana Jones aside, our image of archaeologists and curators of ancient sites is often of quiet men and women who spend their years poking in dry sand, seeking answers to questions few others are asking. In normal times, and for much of his life, Dr. al-Asaad was probably just such a quiet seeker. But when events forced him to choose between surrendering what he cared about and protecting it with his life–forced him to choose between as you wish and over my dead body–he chose to protect it.
Whether or not we value the knowledge to be gained from ancient ruins, whether or not we value the ruins themselves as reminders of those who came before us, whether or not we believe there is anything to be gained from the study of peoples we barely remember–I hope we can respect Dr. al-Asaad’s choice. I hope we can recognize in him a man who stood between the things he loved and the forces of chaos and proclaimed not on my watch.
I hope we can recognize a hero in Khaled al-Asaad. Our own humanity may depend on it.