On ISIS' Iconoclasm

Elliott Colla puts ISIS' recent destruction of Assyrian antiquities in historical context, and explains the extremist group's view of why their display was sacrilegious. This is an interesting read, although I don't see how a modern statue of Saddam Hussein (which Colla rightly points out the US toppled after its own victory in Iraq) has a comparable historical (let alone aesthetic) value to those antiquities. 

It was not just that Europeans arrived to tell everyone that these rocks were sacred (albeit in a non-religious sense), although that happened. It was also that, as Europeans gained control of the region, these same sites and objects were redesignated as excavation sites and museums then cordoned off into 'no-go zones.' It was under the new antiquities laws -- designed to protect and conserve the objects for civilization -- that local peasants were conscripteden masse to work under slave conditions for the great White archaeologists making great 'discoveries' about the ancient past.
Champions of antiquities preservation need to take these colonial and autocratic legacies into consideration as they grapple with the form of iconoclasm practiced by ISIS. And for the record, because there seems to be a doctrinal element to ISIS's practices, it does seem right to think of it as iconoclasm rather than vandalism. The austere Sunni ideology of ISIS (like that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) is one that thinks of itself as iconoclastic in the most basic sense of the word. It is a form of monotheism obsessed with the issue of shirk (the worship of false gods), and finds evidence of it everywhere. It opposes the veneration of objects -- whether in temples or in museums -- on the grounds that such veneration is a threat to monotheistic worship. Like the Wahhabis of the 18th century, we can expect them to attack objects where people worship in a way that threatens their monotheistic conception of Islam, be it at tombs where Shia venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship other gods. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since for them these also represent places of false worship.
This aspect is missed by those who focus solely on the pagan provenance of the artifacts, and think that ISIS is fighting a ridiculously old and anachronistic battle. It is true that the Assyrian objects destroyed in the Mosul Museum are of pagan origin, but that is not the only reason why ISIS targeted them. They were not only or primarily targeting theobjects in the museum, but rather the form of veneration -- the attitude of sacred appreciation -- represented in the institution of the museum itself. They are also, much like the gunmen in Paris, attempting to "sharpen contradictions" in an effort to create a conflict of civilizations. 
Most museum goers and appreciators of ancient artifacts do not think of their practices as a form of religion. But it is not so hard to see how the iconoclasts of ISIS imagine "false religion" when see the trappings of veneration that pervade museums. Nor are they entirely wrong to cry 'religion' when they hear absolutist claims about transcendent value, even those made by secularists and self-professed atheists. 
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS's ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren't we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn't we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies?Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some?

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.