Iconoclasm and the Failure of Ideology


The videos released last week of ISIS soldiers destroying the artifacts of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations were a shocking and disheartening confirmation of ISIS’s feral barbarism.  ISIS is also reported to have bulldozed the archeological remains of the ancient city of Nimrud, thus destroying a rich legacy from the beginnings of human civilization.  The West has reacted with anger and bafflement to what appears to us to be such senseless destruction.  What could possess them to wreck such important and beautiful objects if not possession itself, of the demonic kind?

Although so much of what humans do makes no “sense” from a “logicial” point of view, everything that humans do can be understood; the problem is that to understand someone who acts in ways we find senseless, we have to step out of our own paradigms and try to view things in theirs.  Insofar as that is even possible, we risk thereby questioning the “sense” of our own mental and cultural structures.  To understand ISIS risks giving credence to their barbarism.  It is much simpler to resort to epithets of the “enemy,” as we see in the reaction of conservative Republicans to the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program.  Bombing them back to the Stone Age has a certain definitive appeal.  But as our own post-World War 2 history shows, definitiveness has its dangers.

ISIS claims to represent a pure, original form of Islam, which includes the injunction against any representation of the human form, which Islam considers idolatry.  This is a belief that is shared, generally to a less radical extent, by traditional Judaism and some denominations of Christianity, and can be traced back to the Old Testament and the origins of monotheism.  Exodus 20:14 says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Exactly why this injunction was necessary is nicely illustrated just a dozen chapters later, when the people of Israel, wondering what has happened to their leader Moses, implore Aaron to make them an idol which they can worship, the infamous Golden Calf, which Moses dramatically destroys when he returns from the mountain with the tablets containing the Law.  The sin which the Israelites had committed was to imbue a material object with the attributes of deity, which in monotheism is immaterial and cannot be seen by the eye but only known by the heart—in the words of John Julius Norwich, deity “is not circumscribable, and consequently not to be represented as circumscribed by the limits of a figure within a finite space.”  The lack of idols was the most vivid distinction between Judaism and the other religions of the Middle East, especially in a time when few people were literate and graven images were the primary means of conveying ideas, so much so that the Romans considered the Jews, and later the Christians, as abnormal and antisocial precisely because they rejected the worship of idols.

To the modern mind, idols are harmless; they are viewed as works of art and fragments of history rather than as gods and therefore do not evoke strong religious feelings.  We have for the most part forgotten their power.  But the modern mind may be less universal than “we” imagine—even in the West itself, where religious images may be less common and often unvenerated but where the power of objects and images nevertheless exert their power in numerous “secular” ways.  Advertisers know this, and anyone who has found himself misled by an ad or commercial has been made at least somewhat conscious of it.  We see the tendency in children (and probably a lot of adults!), who often think of their toys as living things with feelings just like their own.  We see it also in lucky charms, talismanic objects, lucky tee shirts, and in the way we view fictional characters in movies and on television.  (By the way, there is irony in the fact that ISIS violates the injunction against images by posting videos online.)

One can rightly say that behind every object, imbued in every image, lies an ideology, and that there is no such thing as a purely “aesthetic” object and no such thing as a purely neutral object.  As Kolrud and Prusac put it in their book “Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity,” “iconoclasm is the destruction or alteration of images or objects imbued with some kind of symbolic value.”  Thus to destroy an object is to strike a blow against its ideology.  Think of radical environmentalists torching McMansions and automobile dealerships, or think of Vietnam era protesters burning their draft cards, or even “tree huggers” chaining themselves to ancient trees—are they not, in a kind of mirror-image iconoclasm, attacking the “meaning” of the tree as so many board feet of lumber rather than a living thing?

When attempted on a large scale, iconoclasm is also an attack on the databases of power.  Destroying entire libraries and museums is to destroy the knowledge and ideas of one’s ideological competitors; “revolutionary” regimes have engaged in such destruction for millennia:  as examples, the wholesale burning of books by Qin Shi Huang, the Nazis, and other cultural “unifiers” of history; the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China and the destruction of Tibetan monasteries; and more recently the attempt to burn the manuscripts of Timbuktu.  In this kind of thinking, killing the king is not enough; wiping out his memory is necessary as well.

The depredations of ISIS are of the same kind, though they have distinctive markers of their own, stemming from a combination of traditional Islamic injunctions against images and the frustrations of young men who see power exercised against their benefit by both domestic and foreign regimes.  Foreign powers, largely imperial Western ones, have dominated the region since the time of Napoleon, who conquered Egypt and transported tons of Egyptian artifacts to France; and domestic regimes, besides being tyrannical and brutal, have failed to provide jobs, education, security, and respect to their populations.  These young men and women have neither the vote nor the economic clout to effect change in a peaceful manner; the general failure of the so-called Arab Spring underscores the lack of hope that so many in the region feel.  It therefore makes sense that poorly educated people, or people narrowly taught only the Koran by rote training, and with no tradition of reason (in the Western Enlightenment sense) and pluralism, would target what they perceive as the object-symbols of their oppressors.

One can object that the statues and other artifacts of Nimrud are from a long lost time and civilization and therefore cannot be object-symbols of modern oppression, so why pick on them?  Perhaps because these objects are in themselves an affront to Islam—one could argue that chimerical objects such as statues with the bearded head of a king mounted on a bull’s body equipped with eagle’s wings are the products of a thoroughly pagan imagination.  On the other hand, perhaps they do in fact represent Western secular values, which the jihadists view as the values of the oppressor.  They have been appropriated by the West as a sort of secular creation myth of Western civilization, and in fact many such objects were transported to museums in Europe and the United States as symbols of the accepted narrative of the evolution of Western Civilization, as virtually any history book will demonstrate.  Such expropriation of the material heritage of a culture manifests the superior power of the imperialists.  So a blow against such objects is a blow against the West.

It is a purely symbolic blow which reveals the essential weakness of ISIS.  The destruction of Nimrud will not bring down Western civilization, nor will it initiate a resurrection of the Caliphate.  ISIS knows how to destroy, but they do not know how to build.  They flourish only in chaos.  They are in this something like the Khmer Rouge; Pol Pot and his cronies were adept at tearing Cambodian society apart, but they had no idea how to put it back together.  They could not create a new and pure society.  Neither could the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Maoists, or any of the utopian/dystopian experiments of the past two centuries.  They were all doomed by the inflexibility and intellectual paucity of their ideologies—one might even say it was ideology itself that doomed them.

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