Imperfect Images

Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet

University of Chicago Press, 136pp, $18.00, ISBN 9780226737560

reviewed by Farah Abdessamad

There’s an eery similarity between the desecration of churches in the height of the French Terror, the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the toppling of Lenin statues at the fall of the Soviet Union and more recently in 2020, the movement which coalesced to abjure Confederate and other slavery-associated symbols. All revolutions seek to destroy the old order to affirm the new, it is said.

In Idols of ISIS, Aaron Tugendhaft, a descendent of Iraqi Jews and scholar of the ancient Middle East, examines the significance of a video clip which had made the rounds online in 2015. It had showed ISIS militants smashing ancient artefacts using sledgehammers and drills in Mosul Museum, engaging in a modern-day iconomachy, purging ‘heresy’ from view and existence.

Tugendhaft lingers on this specific video because, he argues, it not only shows a quasi-ritualistic demolition but also highlights the correspondence between imagery and politics. He finds in the clip a resonance, ranging from Biblical times to the sectarian turmoil of post-2003 Iraq. In his book, he also explores why the location of Mosul’s museum matters, and discusses the apparent paradox in the militants' decision to record the events with a videocamera.

An idol is an image of collective meaning, which carries both positive and negative connotations. For the believer, it may constructively influence the orientation of human life, or conversely be perceived as ‘an imposter encroaching on the transcendent’. An image can be visual — say a fertility statuette or the golden calf in the Old Testament; it can also be sensory, including music, movement, or specific foods or flavours. Historian of religions Mircea Eliade qualified such manifestations of the sacred as hierophanies in primitive societies. Idols are representations which seek to perpetuate a religious experience going back to mythology.

Tugendhaft seems to agree with this interpretation as he advances a symbolic dimension to the destruction of the Mosul artefacts. Through this grim gesture, ISIS emulated a re-enactment – of the Prophet Muhammad tearing down the 360 idols in Mecca, himself said to have replicated Abraham’s call for the suppression of the old cults during King Nimrod’s reign. Despite living thousands of years apart and several ‘revelations’ later, the black-clad men of ISIS are claiming their ‘truth’ against the ‘infidels,’ and a lineage. ISIS destroys to restore, with the hope of reviving ‘an original time of purity’ and vanquish the 'age of ignorance' (‘jahiliyya’).

Given the spectacle – filmed, overlaid with a nasheed (an Islamic song) and distributed on sophisticated and tested ISIS channels – it’s clear that these statues meant more than bits of zoomorphic carvings. Idols of ISIS asserts that idols are not only artwork, or religious objects, but belong to the political realm – and that is why ISIS sought to eradicate them.

Tugendhaft reviews the influential ideas of 10th-century philosopher Al-Farabi, for whom religion represented an enabler to a political community aiming at favouring human happiness. When Abraham confronted King Nimrod, it was about power – both celestial and terrestrial. For Nimrod, accepting the dismantling of his idols meant a loss of kingship in addition to dissolving the structure of society as it was known. In a similar vein, ISIS sought the destruction of idols because they wanted to erase the Arendtian ‘grey zone’ of political plurality. Their vision was to erect a world without politics.

Though Tugendhaft aptly pulls various sources to contextualise the ISIS video in Islamic and Biblical traditions, one caveat to this analysis may be to minimise other views. Mircea Eliade explains in The Sacred and the Profane how religious beings in primitive societies see space and time in relation to a world-view, the mythical moments of creation, cosmogonies, and their connection with the divine. The Babylonian Map of the World from the 6th century B.C. placed the city at its centre. Old Babylonians connected heaven and earth through astrology, omens, and even the layout of their city and monuments. Religious people conduct activities to mimic a time immemorial (in illo tempore), such as spring festivals celebrate the return of the sun after the winter solstice and vernal equinox, a mark of eternal rebirth. The nostalgic idea of a time ab origine isn’t always so removed from us, and even speaks to ISIS’s horrific and violent plans for a recreated caliphate. I would have wished to see this angle explored more fully, as well as some discussion of the parallel between ISIS’s rhetoric about the ‘age of ignorance’ and the Chaos-Cosmos dichotomies of antiquity.

Tyson L. Putthoff, in Gods and Humans in the Ancient Near East, juxtaposes the Foucauldian notion of emplacement (a form of space perception) — what Lefebvre calls lived space (‘l’espace vécu’) — alongside the self, in relation to a ‘divine embodiment model.’ Here, idols can be understood as ‘representational’ copies of an absent god or an ‘embodied double’ which serves to manifest a disembodied god in physical space. Putthoff’s book explores, from a scholarly perspective, ancient Mesopotamian cosmogonies and the link between kingship and creation, as well as the ‘cosmos-temple-body’ correspondence. It suggests that temples and human bodies form their own axes of the world, or microcosms.

If sacred objects do not only transcend politics but are politics, to whom do they belong? And, provocatively: would an Iraqi member of ISIS have the ‘right’ to destroy his own heritage? Tugendhaft criticises the mainstream, western gaze over Mesopotamia, cherished as the cradle of civilisation, under a shared, borderless legacy. Ancient artefacts come from a culture, a land, a distinct people. They are shaped by history and institutions, Tugendhaft reminds us. Why is it significant that these armed militants irrupted into a museum, as opposed to dynamiting open excavation site à la Bamiyan, when the Taleban blew up gigantic Greco-Buddhist statues in 2001? (This in fact happened a few weeks later, after the 2015 video circulated online, in nearby Nimrud.)

Museums are not neutral spaces. They are, by and large, the product of imperial and colonial enterprises. Tugendhaft enlarges this view, exposing the contributions of museology towards shaping Iraq’s changing modern identities, from pan-Arab to nationalist, depending on the regime du jour. Saddam Hussein, whose own statue would be toppled in a much-orchestrated scene for cameras of the world to capture just three weeks after the American-led invasion of 2003, decisively used Mesopotamia’s history to consolidate his own standing. For instance, in 1987 he minted a double portrait coin of himself alongside King Nebuchadnezzar II (a long-serving Babylonian monarch who destroyed the Temple of Solomon upon conquering Judah), enriched with pseudo-cuneiform inscriptions. A museum is nothing short of an extension of state authority and the display of a formal national narrative when taken under the lens of Iraqi politics. Assyrian objects, which ISIS encountered in museums and other sites, also obeyed a dual timeline as they related to recent conflict dynamics, when the Iraqi Assyrians were fighting the terrorist group to regain control of their ancestral lands.

In the book’s closing chapter, the author discusses the inherent contradiction at the heart of ISIS’s propaganda strategy: the removal of images, ostensibly on ideological grounds, is broadcast via the creation of new images. This chapter includes a lengthy aside on Big Tech and Web 2.0. We are told that the act of filming is to show the submission of rivals and document conquest, to ‘tell a story’ which obeys a content generation strategy. As we can sadly recall, ISIS became known for imitating the first-person shooter perspective of video games such as Call of Duty, appealing to millennial and Gen Z potential recruits.

Life within a video game resembles Ibrahim’s regime without images — a life of unmediated obedience to the programmer’s all-encompassing law.

Of course, the Mosul Museum video provoked outrage and shock, like the group’s other ‘productions’. Tugendhaft also sees ISIS following a tradition of Mesopotamian rulers who had held a ‘monopoly on truth and justice’, which makes for a rich and insightful read. But ISIS is foremost a 21st-century phenomenon, and it succeeded in lending brutality to the gamified, instantly gratifying digital age. The book doesn’t dissect the scenography itself, the ambiguous role of the viewer, nor how ISIS militants interact with their surroundings, their bodies becoming objects of a strange choreography.

One doesn’t need to limit a field of enquiry to the Middle East and ISIS to see the prevalence of icons and political hammers in our landscape. The storming of the US Capitol and, two weeks later, the inauguration of President Biden, showed to millions of viewers the revival of rites and mythologies through the fetishisation of symbols and decors. A ‘temple of democracy’ was desecrated, and ‘the beacon to the world’ shone again as ‘democracy prevailed’ on a snowy then (miraculously!) sunny day in Washington, DC. And what about our role as indirect participants in these ceremonies, sharing, liking and posting to the algorithm-shaped memory palaces of social media? Which imperfect images do we decide to live with, and which ones do we agree to ban from our collective imagination?

When I travelled to Mosul a year after the city was retaken from ISIS, someone had spray-painted over all the Caliphate emblems and slogans which had been visible months before on the walls of houses and road signs. A new image had erased the old, for now.

Farah Abdessamad is a French and Tunisian writer living in New York City.