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Empty Niche Syndrome: On ISIS' iconoclasm

ISIS’s vandalism is no betrayal of universal values: it’s driven by the same iconoclasm as Western imperialism and Modernist utopias

ISIS’s war on images – their recent attack on ancient sites in Iraq including the Assyrian city of Nimrud, along with their destruction of statues in the Mosul Museum, many of which may actually have been plaster replicas – has elicited opprobrium from a veritable rainbow-nation of cultural bigwigs. A representative of Al-Azhar, the mosque and university in Cairo that constitute one of Sunni Islam’s leading authorities, called the actions ‘a major crime against the whole world’; the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Thomas Campbell, condemned what he termed an assault on ‘our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding’; the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a statement referring to ‘terrorist gangs’ who ‘continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity’; and the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, called for the protection of ‘the heritage of the whole of humanity’ against these ‘war crimes’.

But despite the diversity of these voices, the universal values they proclaim are clearly nothing of the sort. For a start, the vandalism of ISIS can be added to a list of acts perpetrated by fundamentalist iconoclasts across the Muslim world in recent years, includingthe dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the ransacking of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, and the destruction of Sufi shrines and ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu by rebels armed with hardware acquired from ‘liberated’ Libya in 2012. (It is surely not irrelevant that in all but one of these cases, the vandalism was facilitated by Western meddling.) Far from being a fundamental value, images are as much an ‘existential threat’ to these iconoclasts as ISIS is to us – in other words, none at all, but it suits us both to see them as such. A spokesman for Ansar Dine, the fundamentalist group that occupied Timbuktu in 2012, put it succinctly: ‘There is no world heritage. It does not exist.’

This so-called universal value wouldn’t be so bad if it were just wishful thinking, but it is often something worse: an ideological smokescreen for former colonisers interfering in other peoples’ business – which is perfectly justifiable since, if the love of images is a universal human value, those who don’t subscribe to it must be something less than human. It can come in handy at home, too, where rulers enthusiastically embrace cultural heritage to justify their power and exclude those to whom its vaunted universality doesn’t quite extend. Mussolini, for instance, demolished modern accretions to reveal the ‘authentic’ relics of classical Rome (and his right to the fasces); after the fall of Communism the mayor of Moscow rebuilt the cathedral that Stalin had blown up in the 1930s to demonstrate the new regime’s retour a l’ordre; and Saddam Hussein built a chain of regional museums and restored the Ziggurat of Ur, inscribing his monuments with references to himself as ‘Son of Nebuchadnezzar’. Besides stroking his already engorged megalomania, he was attempting to smooth over the cracks between his fractious peoples by staking claim to an authority dating back to a time before Sunnis and Shias ever set foot in Iraq.

But for all these celebrations of heritage, perhaps the more pervasively cherished value is the destruction of images – as is revealed by the academic response to recent iconoclasm, including several books on the topic, such as Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory, and a show at Tate Britain, Art Under Attack. We are reminded that Muslims themselves have often been on the receiving end of such deeds, for instance in the former Yugoslavia, where Christians destroyed hundreds of Ottoman mosques in the 1990s; or in India, where Hindus destroyed the 430 year-old Babri Mosque in 1992, causing riots in which over 2,000 people died. The British, too, are no strangers to iconoclasm – our national church, lest we forget, was founded in a frenzy of destruction known with euphemistic neutrality as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. While this kind of thing has usually been done in the name of religion, political motives are never far below the surface – for ISIS, it’s about sending a message to ‘corrupt’ Muslim leaders while attracting potential supporters and simultaneously raising funds. For 16th-century Britons, on the other hand, the point was the assertion of our independence from Rome – and raising cash for our own military campaigns.

Since the Reformation we’ve cast off our crusaders’ robes and, instead of knocking about religious artefacts at home, charge around the rest of the world like a bull in a china shop. In China itself, for instance, in 1860, when we destroyed the imperial palace in the Garden of Perfect Brightness and burnt its precious libraries in order to enforce a pernicious drug trade. In 1945 in Dresden – once the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ – which we reduced to a terrifying firestorm. And in Baghdad in 2003, when we preempted ISIS with our own campaign of Shock and Awe.

Garden of Perfect Brightness

A painting of one section of the Garden of Perfect Brightness. The entire complex of buildings and ornamental lakes was burned to the ground by British soldiers seeking to impose unfavourable trade agreements on China in 1860

In each of these cases we pleaded deeply disingenuous moral reasons for reducing other people’s buildings to smithereens, but it seems to me there was a deeper force at work too – a barely suppressed feeling that to destroy is joyful, necessary, even noble. Rip it up and start again. It’s an essential Modernist urge, expressed by the Futurists, Walter Benjamin, Le Corbusier and William Burroughs, who all fantasised with relish about destruction: ‘Rock and roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face.’ Here, as in so many other instances, avant-gardists were the shock troops of neoliberal ideology, and now the doctrine of creative destruction underpins the way we all do business (or have it done to us): boardroom terrorists are never slow to pull the rug out from under our feet, and from beneath our communities and cultural institutions, if they think they might find a few loose coins lying there.

Le Corbusier Iconoclasm

Rip it up and start again. Le Corbusier gestures over his proposals for a renconstructed Paris. For the Modernists like iconoclasts throughout history destruction could be joyful, necessary and even noble

Ironically, with their highly sophisticated use of new media, ISIS and their fellow iconoclasts buy into the same Modernist Western doctrine of spectacular destruction as the Dadaists, the Punks, and the Pentagon before them (this is one of the reasons that they should not be considered nostalgists, but radical modernisers of Islam). As with all terrorists, they require as wide an audience as possible for their propaganda of the deed if they are to flourish – and in social media they have found a way to avoid being starved of the oxygen of publicity. But as historian Emily O’Dell observed of the iconoclasts in Timbuktu, ‘In their destruction of these tombs and bodies as idols – and their redundant murdering of the already dead – [they have] betrayed their own message, for they have themselves traded in politics and religion with images.’ They have made iconoclasm itself iconic.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Classicism and Modernism are two different eras expressed by extremly different construction materials and extremly different people.
    I don't see any iconoclasm here.

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