Newspaper Pledges to Return ISIS Documents to Iraq

A controversy over a U.S. journalist’s removal of documents from Iraq appears to have been resolved. In response to criticism from scholars, The New York Times has announced that the original documents will be turned over to Iraqi authorities.

At stake are records showing how the Islamic State administered daily life in Iraqi territories the extremist group controlled until recently. But the real heart of the matter is the Iraqis’ right to reclaim, control and access their cultural heritage, including modern archives that contribute to an understanding of some of the tragedies the country has suffered.

In April, The New York Times published “The ISIS Files,” a feature article on life in areas ruled by the former Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The Islamic State declared its “caliphate” at Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 and at its height controlled large stretches of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

The article’s main author, Rukmini Callimachi, and her team gathered nearly 16,000 pages of internal Islamic State documents over the course of five trips to Iraq. The team was embedded with Iraqi security forces sweeping towns and territories newly liberated from ISIS and, with security officers’ verbal consent, the journalists took records left behind by the extremists at police stations, courts, training camps and homes.

Accusations of ‘Plunder’

In some quarters, Callimachi’s article provoked consternation. Sara Farhan, a doctoral student of history at Toronto’s York University who hails from Mosul, started an online petition “to denounce the latest plunder of Iraq’s cultural property and condemn the publication of Iraqi civilians’ personal data,” and to demand the documents’ return to Iraq.

Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi novelist and translator who is a professor at New York University, portrayed the newspaper’s actions as a continuation of the colonial practices that filled Western museums with Eastern antiquities. “The practice of plunder extends beyond archaeological treasures and pre-modern relics,” he wrote in a commentary for Al Jazeera. “Entire archives and collections of important documents are still plundered by foreign institutions (or individuals working with them) and states.”

In an open letter published on the website of the Middle East Studies Association, Judith E. Tucker, the association’s president, and Laurie A. Brand, chair of the group’s Committee on Academic Freedom, asserted that Callimachi used the materials “in complete disregard of the myriad legal, professional, ethical, and moral issues involved.” Taking the documents outside the country, the MESA leaders wrote, “once again empowers outsiders to unduly influence, or even control, the narration of Iraq’s history.” Tucker is a professor of history at Georgetown University and Brand is a professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Southern California.

Now, The New York Times has announced that it will return the original documents to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington. It has also said it will announce its plans to make digital copies of the documents available to scholars and researchers soon.

In another move to address their critics’ concerns, Callimachi and her editor took questions from readers through the paper’s website.

Insights Into Extremist Rule

Callimachi’s reporting, based on the documents, offers some interesting insights. For example, she writes that the documents provide evidence that it was taxes on commerce and agriculture, more than outside funding or even oil sales, that largely financed the Islamic State.

Callimachi also documents the way ISIS confiscated the property of all non-Sunni Iraqis and redistributed it, partly through the newly created Ministry of War Spoils.

The Islamic State also included a Ministry of Zakat and Charities, which enforced the collection of a religious tax, and a Ministry of the Hisba, which monitored infractions to religious law. “Citizens were thrown into jail for a litany of obscure crimes, including eyebrow plucking, inappropriate haircuts, raising pigeons, playing dominoes, playing cards, playing music and smoking the hookah,” Callimachi wrote.

But mostly ISIS took over the existing local administrations, forcing (male) employees to continue to come to work and to carry out its new policies.

Responses to Readers

In the question and answer session with readers, the Times’s international editor, Michael Slackman, wrote that the documents taken were “abandoned, and in many cases at risk of being destroyed.” He argued that the journalists were engaged in preserving the documents, and were not acting outside the law.

“Our aim was to preserve and protect the documents to ensure that the public would have the chance to understand ISIS from inside ISIS,” he wrote.

Callimachi added that “Iraqi security forces nearly always accompanied our team. They led the way and gave permission to take the documents,” she wrote.

But critics of the Times’s decision say the assent of military commanders does not amount to official permission from the relevant authorities. They also argue that the removal of the documents contravenes a number of legal conventions: The prohibition of pillage under the 1907 Hague Convention; the protection of cultural heritage under the 1943 London Declaration; the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Another concern is the way documents with individuals’ names were published un-redacted. There is a document in “The ISIS Files” article, for example, showing the application of a Sunni man for confiscated Shia land, with the man’s full name and photo. Couldn’t the publication of those details lead to retaliation? To this question, Callimachi offered a laconic and frankly dissatisfying answer: “Please know that we would of course remove identifying information if we believed there was a risk to a civilian’s safety.”

A History of Cultural Thefts

Control over archives is a particularly sensitive issue in Iraq, which has been repeatedly robbed in devastating ways of its cultural and historical heritage. Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, a temporary transitional government set up by the United States, reportedly removed 120 million pages of documents from the country, most of which remain unaccounted for and inaccessible to scholars to this day.

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American scholar and strong supporter of the invasion, was allowed to take possession of an archive of the former ruling Baath party consisting of millions of pages; this and other documents donated by U.S. authorities were taken out of Iraq and became part of the Iraq Memory Fund. In 2008, the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archives asked the fund to return the documents, writing that: “The Iraqis desperately want to know and confront the realities of their recent past. They need to recognize the suffering of the victims and to identify those who committed crimes, before bringing them to justice. The Iraqis are well aware that any national reconciliation project cannot be successfully implemented without making the seized documents available for both scholars and the public, mediated by a responsible agency representative of them.”

Instead, the archive remains housed at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, with no plans for a return.

(The Iraqi Jewish Archive—which has been undergoing repairs in the U.S. National Archives in Washington—is scheduled to be returned to Iraq soon, despite pressure to break a promise to the Iraqi authorities to do so.)

Compared to the grand scale and high-handedness of earlier thefts, the New York Times’s removal of documents is a more modest and mitigated crime. The newspaper has at least responded to the questions and demands of its critics.

Hopefully, the furor over its investigation shows that there is less tolerance than before for the argument that only Western institutions and experts can preserve and interpret the history of non-Western countries (particularly ones they have invaded).

The advantage of having these archives in Iraq for Iraqi researchers, who are in need of all the resources they can get and have a right to access their own history, is self-evident; but it also strikes me as only right for foreign scholars who wish to view the originals to travel to Iraq, to set foot in the country whose modern history they are studying.


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