ISIS And Iconoclasm: De-facement As A Failed Politic by Jack Vates
It was hard to miss. Last week the ISIS idolaters once again showed the entire world their propensity for awfully stupid actions by looting the Mosul museum in Iraq and demolishing the precious relics stewarded inside. In their mind, this kind of evocation is a high virtue. Something to absolutely aspire to while securing their bid for ‘statehood’ in the world theatre. This is nothing new. Iconoclasm has been practiced all the way back to Akhenaton and surely before that. As Latour remarked, “Iconoclasm is an absolute – not a relative – distinction between truth and falsity, between a pure world, absolutely emptied of human-made intermediaries, and a disgusting world composed of impure but fascinating human-made mediators”.
In a desperate attempt to instill secular legitimacy, ISIS chose de-facement as a means to re-face Mosul under the shroud of the IS flag. As if defacing the artifacts would inevitably create new faces, as if defacement and ‘re-facement’ were necessarily coeval. When ISIS took sledgehammers to the museum they did it under the rationale that the icons were counterfeit. That the more they are constructed by the human hand, the less truth they embody. But what if truth is increased by being human-made. Perhaps interaction with the Other is increased through the construction of sacred images. As Ramon Sarro eloquently suggests, “Far from despoiling access to transcendent beings, the revelation of human toil, of the tricks, reinforce the quality of this access.”
ISIS would clearly gnash their teeth at the thought and in doing so, fall into the ultimate conundrum involving iconoclasm. What Bruno Latour calls “The Double-Bind”. Are the relics human-made or transcendent? There is a concept called acheiropoite that suggests sacred icons are not made by the human hand. They are constructed by the Other as representations of the numinous and thus real purveyors of religious power. So ISIS must make a choice. Either the relics are human-made or literally transcendent. Either it is made or it is real.
The ultimate idolatry of ISIS comes in their denial of the objects being transcendent. By destroying the religious icons they have made it impossible to produce objects of sanctity. As Latour remarks, “the idol-smasher is doubly mad: not only has he deprived himself of the secret to produce transcendent objects, but he continues producing them even though this production has become absolutely forbidden, with no way to be registered.” And herein lays the stupidity of ISIS. They have inadvertently made their own icons religiously irrelevant. They have corrupted the power and legitimacy of IS re-presentation. And they can’t even identify what form their icons come in. Although it’s obvious to anybody who can think critically that the IS icon is video production. The videos are their mediators. In the highly ritualized productions complete with voice-overs and special effects, ISIS has created an idol that they then made illegitimate and devoid of power by making themselves unable to assemble or gather divinities. Destroying the museum destroyed any chance of the IS to create religious power.
On the other hand, if ISIS clumsily tries to say the icons were indeed transcendent and not made by human hands then again they show their idolatry. After all, if the smashed objects have real religious power, ISIS is giving legitimacy to these ancient religions and renewing them in modernity. How would Muhammad react to giving real religious power to other spiritual paradigms? He’d be disgusted with ISIS. Not to mention a true Jihad comes as a war between peoples of differing religious systems and their gods. And the first foray of Jihad comes in making the opposing religion’s gods illegitimate. By giving the smashed icons religious reality, they’ve already lost the Jihad. They’ve made it impossible for themselves to produce religious icons while at the same time making other’s icons transcendent.
Perhaps the most important point to take away from all this is that iconoclasm destroys something in the idol-smasher that must be atoned for. It goes beyond making one’s own spiritual predilections devoid of any real power. The iconoclast offends every god and goddess by the sheer audacity of their actions. The deities become appalled at this perversion of inter-action. IS are not only idolaters to their own cause but bereft of religious power and offensive to the gods that Be. And in their stupidity, they will continue to be a nuisance to the rest of the world. Perhaps if they had the foresight to divorce themselves from any religious paradigm and admit that the real goal is secular statehood, they wouldn’t be seen as idolaters but they had to win the hearts of minds of the populace somehow. And now even Iran is leering at them and ready to lash out. It won’t be long now. The ISIS bid for relevance has been denied on every level- both secular and spiritual.
 Bruno Latour. On The Cult Of The Factish Gods. Duke University Press. Durham & London. 2010. Pp. 68.
 See Han Belting, “Beyond Iconoclasm. Nam June Paik, the Zen Gaze and Escape From Representation.” In Iconoclash: Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion, and Art. Ed. Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour. 390-411. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press. 2002.
 See Ramon Sarro, “The Iconoclastic Meal: Destroying Objects and Eating Secrets Among the Baga of Guinea. In Iconoclash Pp. 227-230.
 On The Cult Of The Factish Gods. Pp. 80.