Iconoclasm in the ‘Islamic State’

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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August Ancient Near East Today

By: Lucinda Dirven

This spring ISIS posted several videos on the Internet showing militants destroying centuries-old artifacts and buildings in northern Iraq, the region that since the summer of 2014 belongs within their so-called ‘caliphate.’ The first video showed iconoclasts destroying artifacts in the archaeological museum of Mosul, Iraq’s second most important museum after the National Museum in Bagdad. In later recordings we saw them assaulting Nimrud and Hatra, the primary archeological sites from where the museum artifacts originated.

Destruction of artifacts at the Mosul museum.

Destruction of artifacts at the Mosul museum.

Destruction of artifacts at the Mosul museum.

Destruction of artifacts at the Mosul museum.

Destroying Assyrian relief at Nimrud.

Destroying Assyrian relief at Nimrud.

The world reacted in shock to this deliberate destruction of Iraqi heritage and many fear this is only the beginning of ruthless destruction of all archaeological sites in IS territory. But why ISIS is deliberately destroying cultural heritage? The media frequently suggests that this is nothing but barbaric behavior, senseless destruction without any thought or reason other than religious fanaticism. The truth is far more complicated. This is not the first time that statues and buildings have been destroyed on such a scale. History is full of examples of iconoclasm. While none of these historical events is identical to what is currently happening in the Middle East, they do show that iconoclasm is often the result of religious, political and economic factors.

Destruction at Nimrud.

Destruction at Nimrud.

Idol worship
In the recent videos, a theologian of Islam (ulema) explained that the statues are being destroyed because they are ‘shirk’: expressions of idol worship and polytheism that must be eradicated. The cleansing of Islam of any foreign and corrupting elements is an important element of the jihadist ideology of ISIS. In an attempt to emulate the prophet Muhammed, who destroyed statues of idols, ISIS wants to eradicate all forms of religious expression that are not in line with their interpretation of Sunni Islam. The theological reasoning of this iconoclasm is the Second Commandment of the prophet Moses: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth’ (Exodus 20: 4). The making of statues is forbidden because people may fall into idol worship, which happened when the Israelites made a golden calf in the Sinai desert (Exodus 32: 1-33).

Destruction at Hatra.

Destruction at Hatra.

The commandments of Moses are written in the Bible and in the Quran. This explains why from time to time iconoclasm re-emerges in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In some periods the ban is extended to imagery of all living creatures, but it mostly concerns representations of deities. But not all religious groups exercise the same strictness when it comes to making statues of gods. Sometimes it is allowed to make representations of gods if they are not worshipped. Occasionally a group holds a literal interpretation of Holy Scriptures and rejects depictions of divine beings altogether. For example, at the end of the 4th century CE when Christianity became the sole official religion in the Roman Empire, fanatic Christians destroyed many non-Christian sanctuaries. And during the 8th and 9th centuries, Christian advocates and opponents of religious imagery twice battled against each other in the Byzantine Empire. As a result, almost all art from the early years of Christianity was destroyed in the East. Large-scale destruction of statues also occurred in later centuries. In northern Europe, followers of John Calvin destroyed countless Catholic statues during the iconoclastic movement of 1566. They argued these statues were remnants of heathen beliefs that were at odds with Christianity.

Nicolas Poussin – The Adoration of the Golden Calf.

Dirk van Delen (c. 1604/1605–1671), Iconoclasts in a church

The Chludov Psalter (9th century)

Battle against shirk
In the 18th century, a new fundamentalist and conservative movement arose within Sunni Islam: Wahhabism. Followers of the preacher Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab cleansed the Arabian peninsula of all Jewish, Christian and Islamic elements that did not fit their strict, statue-less doctrine. Wahhabism lies at the heart of contemporary Saudi Arabia and is a source of inspiration for extremist militant groups such as Al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, the Taliban and ISIS. In all of these groups we find instances of iconoclasm. In 2008, the terrorist group al-Shabaab destroyed sanctuaries and Sufi graves in the Somali city of Kismayo. They also tore down an old church that had been abandoned for years. In 2012, Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine destroyed more than half of all the Sufi sanctuaries in Timbuktu in Mali. Skeptics say that the fight against shirk or idol worship cannot be the true reason for demolishing ancient statues, because these statues haven’t been worshipped for centuries. This is correct, but the fact that believers are emulating the Prophet is undoubtedly appealing and greatly contributes to the recruiting power of these actions.
The destruction of historical and archaeological cultural heritage is widely reported by the western media and this creates the impression that ISIS is mainly targeting historical monuments. But the destruction of the cultural heritage of other religious groups is far more extensive. ISIS destroys statues and buildings because they want to ‘cleanse’ Islam from shirk; they target monuments from other religious groups, such as Christians, Yazidis and ‘deviant’ Islamic groups, like Sufis and Shia Muslims. In some cases historically important structures are destroyed, such as the monument of the Armenian genocide in Deir ez-Zor, the 8th century Assyrian church in Tikrit, and the tomb of the prophet Yunis (Jonah) in Mosul. The majority of the countless churches, mosques, graveyards and libraries that have been destroyed by ISIS are not very old and have little to no value in terms of art. But this does not diminish their importance.

Tomb of Nebi Yunus, the prophet Jonah, after its destruction.

Timbuktu shrine being destroyed.

The systematic cultural cleansing that ISIS is performing in its territory shows that religious iconoclasm often has political motives as well. Cultural cleansing is often paired with ethnic cleansing and correlates to territorial claims. The prophetic words of the German poet Heinrich Heine ‘wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’ (Where books are being burned, there will eventually be burned people too) have come true many times since he wrote in 1821, and are still very true in this day. During the Armenian genocide that began 100 years ago, the Turks not only killed over 1.5 million Armenians but they razed their churches and monasteries as well. During the Holocaust the Nazis destroyed countless synagogues and cemeteries in the course of murdering six million Jews. As the Khmer Rouge killed some two million Cambodians during the 1970s they also destroyed many Buddhist sanctuaries in Cambodia. Christian Serbs destroyed thousands of mosques in the nineties in Kosovo, where they also killed and chased away numerous Muslims. The acts of ISIS are very similar; not only are they destroying monuments of people that do not accept ISIS’ doctrine, they also murder them or chase them from their native lands. Now that they are gone and their houses and places of worship destroyed, it is as if they never lived within ISIS’ new ‘caliphate.’ ISIS’ wide distribution of horrific videos showing the massacre of captives reinforce the message that only orthodox Muslims will survive in the ‘caliphate.’ Cultural and ethnic cleansing is a way to claim political power within a certain territory, as well as control over history.

Economic motives
Thus far only religious and political motives have been adduced to explain ISIS’ iconoclasm. But there are also economic considerations. Trading antiquities on the black market is one of ISIS’ largest sources of income after oil. Selling cultural heritage is also a form of iconoclasm, because objects are being removed from their place of origin. Again, it is not the first time that such things happen. A prime example is the many icons that were removed from Russian churches after the 1918 Revolution and ended up in western collections and museums. Buddhist art from Tibet that flooded the western marked after China invaded in 1950 is another sad example.

Taller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after destruction by Taliban.

Baiting a response
Despite the many outbreaks of iconoclasm throughout history, deliberate and public destruction of historical cultural heritage seems to be an aspect of iconoclasm that has only occurred in the last fifty years. This is directly correlated to the importance of heritage to western countries. More countries are starting to realize the importance of history and historical objects for the identity of a ‘people,’ a country, or to humanity as a whole. But the more importance we ascribe to artefacts, the more ISIS will continue their iconoclasm to attract as much attention as they can in the western media. The videos that ISIS spreads over the Internet and the fierce reactions to them show that at least some of this iconoclasm is targeted against the west.

By rejecting western norms and values, ISIS creates its own identity that is in opposition to everything the west stands for. A similar situation occurred in 2001, when the Taliban blew up the two enormous Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan. Like ISIS’ destructions, this was a carefully planned action announced many weeks in advance. Western attempts to prevent the destruction by pointing out the cultural importance of the Buddha’s, had the complete opposite effect. The value that these statues had to the west made them idols that had to be destroyed to the Taliban.

Iconoclasm by ISIS is a complicated phenomenon, with religious, political and economic motives, not simple, senseless acts of violence and destruction carried out by simple-minded militants. Like many earlier instances of destruction, iconoclasm by ISIS is deliberate action instigated by its leaders, directed against both objects and people and which may rightfully be called a war crime.

Lucinda Dirven teaches ancient history at the University of Amsterdam.

More Links:

Why ISIS Just Beheaded History

ISIS’ Shocking Assault on History


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