Isis’s Turn of the Screw

Why ISIS is tightening up its Islamist propaganda

by Arielle Blattner
Graphic Designer and MA Student of Islamic Art

Over the last several years, the rise of Islamic extremism has resulted in the public destruction of several objects of archaeological and artistic value. Recently, we have seen various demonstrations of such destruction, including the Taliban’s demolition of monumental Buddhas in Bamiyan in 2001. While there have been numerous cases, this article will focus on the recent destruction of Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum by the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This article aims to understand such destruction as a modern and politically motivated act, rather than a result of archaic ideology.

The Destruction

A legitimization for the act of destroying figurative “idolatrous” artwork is found in Islamic religious tradition. For example, we know from Said bin Abu Al-Hasan that Ibn ‘Abbas heard from an apostle that Allah punishes men who make pictures of animated beings. This is because figurative artwork reflects life; however, the artwork can never contain actual life.  These traditions are a clear continuation of monotheistic teaching beginning with the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. Debates regarding figural imagery within the Islamic world have been ongoing, resulting in a lack of a unified set of rules. Moreover, the iconoclastic attitude varies depending on regime, time, and place. In fact, there is a long history of figurative elements within Islamic art, even regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, a point made recently by University of Michigan Art History professor Christine Gruber.
Figurative images were generally avoided in religious art, whereas many examples exist within the realm of secular art. When objects were deemed idolatrous and inappropriate by a new regime, destruction, decapitation or defacement were the measures adopted to deal with the improper images. There are numerous examples of Persian miniatures with human figures whose faces were later smudged into oblivion,as well as examples of figural architecture with decapitated faces. Attitudes varied from individual to governmental interpretations, and the treatment of figurative images was not dependent on whether the artist or culture of manufacture was Muslim or non-Muslim.
As New York University Art History professor Finbarr Barry Flood has written, defaced artworks were usually salvaged; total destruction was a rare event. Defaced elements were also re-used (usually in architecture) and incorporated into new buildings (as spolia) as a sign of victory over the former regime. The defacement or decapitation was meant to defuse any divine power that figuration implied (the reason for their prohibition), not to annihilate the images themselves. Both the use of spolia and defacement were ways to “correct” idolatrous artwork and render them ineffective while maintaining other aesthetic elements of the works. In the total destruction of artworks that we have seen in recent years, all value of the artwork and previous culture is obliterated. This act is a physical metaphor for the complete intolerance permeating extremist regimes that kill any individual with a differing opinion.

The Publication

The ruination of the Assyrian statues is not just an orthodox Islamic iconoclastic response. Rather, it is a political message delivered at a specific moment in history. The filming and publication of recent ISIS destructions reveals a deeper motivation. One of ISIS’s political tactics is to publicize the atrocious acts it commits in order to communicate their “jihadist” goals and shock the West. The act of filming and public dissemination turns the destruction into a performance for specific audiences. Through this performative act, ISIS is communicating a message of intolerance, resentment, and revenge.
Most obviously, their videos emphasize ISIS’s seriousness and hatred for anything that fails to uphold the group’s religious standards. The clips demonstrate clear consequences to idols or to the people who make them. Videos of ISIS fighters killing foreign ‘infidels’ prove this point. Moreover, the publication of these acts shows the degree to which they are proud of their actions and that this is precisely the public image they are building for themselves. It is a provocation to the West: look what will happen to you and the things you cherish!
While it is clear that ISIS considers anyone who does not follow the group’s strict reading of the Quranic and Islamic teachings to be an infidel, the West has a special place in the hierarchy of infidels.
It appears that ISIS has a specific (in their view, legitimate) political score to settle with Western powers. ISIS members mentioned the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 in a 2014 documentary published by Vice News and in a statement by ISIS. In the agreement, British and French diplomats held secret conferences, along with Russians, to secure their power and divide up the area formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Even to this day, the agreement represents a symbol of lingering colonialism amid the search for an independent Islamic political identity. American and foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past several years, along with other proxy power struggles, have only exacerbated this issue.  The current events are a backlash from the Islamic world’s colonized past, not to mention intra-Islamic sectarian divides that recall the succession of Muslim power following Muhammad’s death.
Another reason for this specific act to be publicized and used as a tool to provoke the West is tied to the symbolism of the museum. The concept of the art museum, a relatively modern European conception, was used to (at times) exploit the Islamic world. Indeed, many treasures of Islamic art are to this day situated in museums in Europe and the United States or in private collections.The destruction at the Mosul Museum awakens viewer awareness regarding colonialism, material culture, and Western Imperialism. These are all modern issues that have been raised within contemporary art historical analysis regarding the role of museums and the objects displayed within them. From the appropriation of object collections to the way they are displayed to the public, regional history plays an important role in defining the relationship of the museum to the culture it exhibits. In addition, ISIS may not want to identify the non-Islamic Assyrian culture (or the statues that were made then) with Iraqi history. In short, the museum raises two issues: 1) Western ideas of ‘art’ and the implication that colonialism has had on Islamic art objects, and 2) ISIS’s own desire to distance itself from Iraq’s non-Islamic cultural history.
It is important to understand the rationalization, legitimized resentment, and self-righteousness that compel ISIS and extremist Islamic groups to target the Western world.
While perhaps aimed at the West, any individual who does not fit ISIS ideology will be pulled into the category of infidel. These include imperfect Sunna Muslims, Shiites, and local Christian and Yazidi communities.

The Reaction

Of course, ISIS performed all of these acts as provocation. In return, the group received a reaction from the West. The visceral response was the result of the destruction of objects that hold worldwide historical and cultural significance. But it is not Western history – it is also Iraqi history. Assyria was a Semitic kingdom in Eastern Mesopotamia covering much of the area of Syria and Iraq that ISIS today controls.
From the time of the Islamic expansion, Quranic teaching has been interwoven within local culture – a phenomenon that sociologists refer to as GLOCAL (Global plus Local). As Islamic caliphates expanded their influence and borders, new non-Islamic communities were incorporated into the empire – some converted to one of the many sects of Islam and some did not. The great peak of the Islamic Golden Age included the mingling of diverse populations and ideas: – the Fatimids, Abbasids, Seljuqs, Mamluks, and Safavids, to name a few. Islamic art displays both consistent aesthetic qualities and a diverse range of elements that remain true to varying local cultures. Islamic art and culture remain manifold as a reflection of time and place in one of the manifestations of the Islamic experience.
If what extremists are doing in the name of Islam may be considered offensive on a general basis, it is even more offensive to those who appreciate the multifaceted nature of Islamic art. Just as extremist Islam oversimplifies its variety, the ripples of this monolithic view inevitably impact art and culture. Where there is overlap of populations, a place for creativity occurs. As Homi Bhabha has written in his seminal book The Location of Culture, creative cultural expression develops in places of overlapping populations with divergent identities. This nuanced view is not allowed in extremist regimes where everyone must have the same Islamic identity, both internally and externally. There is no area for integration of ideas or creative expression because counter-culture is stifled. The consequences of this repression are clearly seen as most political artists in Iraq must move to Europe or the United States in order to continue to freely produce works.

Sharia law offers non-Muslims protection, and they are allowed to live with Muslims if they pay a tax called jizya. While it appears that ISIS has offered the usual three options – convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax, or die – according to an article in the Washington Times and Forbes, the tax they are requiring appears exploitative. In addition, the clear aggression towards non-Muslims makes many suspicious of whether a one-time tax would realistically alleviate the threat to their lives. It is telling that until now, Christians have lived alongside Muslims in Iraq for thousands of years, not to mention the different sects of Muslims living side by side. Furthermore ISIS fighters, while purportedly the purest of Muslims, are not acting very Muslim. In a 2014 film by Itai Anghel Kurdish guerrilla fighters describe ISIS members as taking hallucinogenic drugs before battles and camping out in mosques before they were blown up.
The recent destruction by ISIS of Assyrian statues is not simply an act born out of medieval religious iconoclasm. It is an extreme political statement against the West, a misguided modern reaction to the current geopolitical situation. Modern extremist Islam is distinctive in its complete intolerance and denial of the multicultural ethos of Islam. The destruction of the Assyrian statues fits into this modern extremist Islamic jihad ideology; however, ISIS is waging not only a religious war against the West, but also against its own roots in Islam.

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