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ISIS and Iconoclasm: The History of the Museum Smash

Visiting the Baghdad Museum website is now a journey into a black screen that reads, simply:

 

This statement is quite literal. Recent weeks have been painful for anyone with even a passing interest in art and culture—a melee of irreversible destruction, intent on wiping out stores of cultural artifacts in Syria and Iran. Using heavy equipment, explosives, and a vast army of disciples and paid laborers, the Islamic State has engaged in iconoclasm at a truly alarming pace and scope; many academics fear there will soon be nothing left. Centuries-old books: burned. Priceless statues in the Mosul museum: jackhammered. A few weeks ago, the artifact-rich Nimrud was bulldozed. Last summer, the Tomb of Jonah was rigged with explosives and blown sky-high.

This seems a natural progression for religious extremists who’ve seen diminishing shock returns on each new beheading. Destroying these icons can be viewed as the next stage of a campaign to upset squeamish Westerners (and recruit new soldiers). Reading about it in many mainstream outlets, it would seem this behavior is without precedent—only a group as singularly savage as ISIS could plumb these depths. Right?

But a quick browse of history, even just the last hundred years, reveals many other incidents of art on the pyre.

“If there’s one thing I can stress above all else, it’s how very unsurprising the Islamic State’s actions are here,” says James Noyes, author of The Politics of Iconoclasm and one of the world’s foremost experts on destroying religious art.

For instance, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, a call to “Sweep Away all Monsters and Demons” led to mass destruction of buildings, books and paintings. The Nazis torched thousands of works of “degenerate art” (read: Cubist or Surrealist) in the late ‘30s. During the Bosnian War of the ’90s, countless mosques and museums were intentionally targeted and decimated, effectively razing the region’s rich cultural and artistic heritage.

On surface, these purges can seem like bullying on a grand scale, a simple expression of dominance by an aggressor. But there is almost always a grander justification; the destruction is defended with lofty ideology (political and/or religious). During the mid-20th century, China’s Maoist regime destroyed artwork that appeared sympathetic to bourgeois capitalist values. In its place came grandiose portraits of farmers and laborers, operas that focus on revolution, sculptures of Mao himself. It’s a special brand of warfare.

Noyes places Islamic State’s recent smashfest within longstanding dogmatic traditions. This is not the first time Muslim hardliners have waged war on cultural artifacts; in fact, many of these very same shrines have been targeted in the past. The destruction was perhaps less thorough—jackhammers and bulldozers have lent ISIS an unmatched level of efficiency—but the intent is certainly not new. These days, iconoclasm has become a synonym for innovation, but the word itself comes from Greek, meaning “image-breaking.” It is a familiar refrain for many world religions: edicts against worshipping golden calves, of worshipping man’s creations instead of a holy Creator.

(Above: A video still of the Tomb of Jonah’s destruction late last July.)

In particular, Noyes likens current ISIS actions to the Calvinist Beeldensturm (“statue storm”) rampages of the late 1500s. As Catholicism’s popular support waned, unruly Protestant mobs took to the countryside. These true believers had long been persecuted for their views; their iconoclasm voiced some pent-up rage.Nicholas Sander, a 16th century religious scholar, paints the scene:

“They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones, not sparing the glass and seats which were made about the pillars of the church for men to sit in … they trod under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it.”

Of course, the Calvinists did not have YouTube in their arsenal. Destroying your enemy’s icons has long made for a powerful statement, but the impact of that statement depended on how well you could broadcast it. In 2015, high-def videos of your destruction can be sent around the world in mere moments. “What really makes these ISIS attacks memorable is the new media,” says Sam Hardy, who researches crimes against cultural property at the City College of London. “It’s consciously designed to provoke a reaction, with the close-ups and the slow motion…like a low-end Hollywood thriller.”

In this sense, Islamic State’s motives morph into something less holy. If these were purely devotional acts (of destruction), they could surely be privately performed without sharable video links. These acts serve a dual purpose, at the juncture of devotion and provocation. And what of reports that – instead of being destroyed—some of these artifacts are ending up on the black market, used to fund Islamic State’s operating costs? Noyes says that this information is being brandished like a propaganda saber. “It’s like when you hear that some Islamic group’s women are wearing French lingerie under their traditional garments, or that they all watch Game of Thrones,” he says,” It discredits their principles, makes them look like hypocrites.”

It does seem, though, that there is validity to those stories; Hardy verifies that some smaller objets d’art are indeed being pawned by ISIS into the underground economy. But he doesn’t see this as a conflict of Islam State’s principles, such as they are. “If selling some of these items, which hold no value (to ISIS), can be used to further their larger aims, it could be argued these sales do not violate their own principles.” Indeed, the Nazis also profiteered from confiscated art; they tended to destroy only the less-valuable paintings.

Worth noting too, are the types of objects being targeted here. Attacks on Mosul churches, including their attendant shrines and images of Christ and Mary, fall very much in line with Islamic iconoclast. But destroying secular museum artifacts and archaeological sites is something different. “These are not objects of active worship,” says Noyes. “But they do matter a lot to the international community, to UNESCO, to the West. Here ISIS know that they can strike at the soft underbelly of the West.”

Just how effective are these tactics? Or, really, how do you even measure effectiveness here? If it’s simply a question of disturbing Western complacency, then mission accomplished. Of course, televised beheadings were doing a pretty good job of unsettling the West; it’s a debatable point whether this is an escalation. But perhaps effectiveness is determined by unswerving allegiance to principle, by the fullest expression of belief.

While history has not looked kindly upon perpetrators of cultural destruction and iconoclasm, that doesn’t detract from each act’s resonance. No one could argue ISIS (or the Khmer Rouge, or the Calvinists) didn’t walk their talk. There was only one opportunity to blow up the Tomb of Jonah, to bulldoze Nimrud, and only one group can say they carried it off. Iconoclasm, in its original meaning, isn’t Steve Jobs redesigning a phone. It’s the destruction of a culture.