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Al-Nuri mosque: The irony of ISIS' iconoclasm

Posted June 22

When ISIS fighters seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, they tried to destroy the Great Mosque of al-Nuri's minaret, regarding it as a idolatrous. But residents formed a human chain around it, preventing its destruction -- such was the gulf between the people of Mosul and their new rulers.

What's far more difficult to comprehend is why the militant group -- which the US and Iraq say blew up the mosque on Wednesday -- would want to destroy the very place where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his envisaged Caliphate, a place steeped in a history that inspired the group's ideology.

The irony is that the ideological forefather of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a Jordanian terrorist in awe of the al-Nuri mosque and of the man who created it at the end of his reign eight centuries ago. It was probably one of the reasons Baghdadi chose al-Nuri as the place to make his historic declaration.

More than 800 years old, the mosque was built by one of the great military commanders in Islamic history, Nur al-din al-Zangi, a man who represented the zenith of Islamic power across a huge region in the late 12th century -- someone usually admired by jihadists.

Zangi unified different Muslim factions in successful battles against Christian Crusaders near Antioch and seized Damascus. He is even said to have bathed in the Mediterranean to demonstrate the extent of Islamic power.

During his 28-year reign, Zangi also built madrasas to revive the dominance of Sunni Islam over Shia Islam, and celebrated holy war, or jihad, in expanding his dominions. So he -- and the mosque that he built -- had a special place in the historical memories of contemporary jihadists.

The leading al Qaeda figure Saif al-Adel told a Jordanian author that Zarqawi would always look for books about Zangi.

"The best presents he ever got from his acquaintances were history books that would lengthily describe the jihad that (Zangi) waged against the crusaders and the triumphs that he led his followers to," he said.

Al-Adel, quoted by the authors Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Richard Miniter, concluded: "Those who closely study history sometimes take on their heroes' roles and follow their footsteps in order to reshape the course of history."

Zarqawi also set out to destroy Shia shrines in Iraq, like the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which was bombed in February 2006, in an effort to spark civil war in Iraq.

Again, he was following in the footsteps of Zangi, for whom, according to the British scholars David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, "the jihad against heresy must be pursued as vigorously as the jihad against the crusaders."

Now Zarqawi's followers have destroyed a place of real symbolic significance to the revived Caliphate they dreamed of, but which is now -- literally and metaphorically -- in ruins.

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