Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet – Interview with Aaron Tugendhaft

A major contemporary rabbi in Israel known for his Neo-Chassidus recounts how he once asked his teacher to go to ancient idolatrous places, meaning the archeological remains of Phoenician and Canaanite worship, in the land of Israel to destroy them. He asked if they could “go in the quiet of the night to destroy them.”  His teacher answered him that “everything will be revealed, and it therefor cause retaliation and endangering lives.”  But nevertheless, “we should share in the pain of the shekhinah who agonizes of the idolatry in the land, especially the Churches on Mt Zion.” And “our way to wage war is only a spiritual war” What motivates these rabbis to go beyond Jewish law and seek a purity over the past? What are the value of these sites as cultural heritage? And what vision of the polis are they seeking to create?

To help up conceptualize these questions we turn to a great new book by Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Tugendhaft teaches at Bard College Berlin. He received his PhD from the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University in 2012 and also holds degrees in Art History and Social Thought from the University of Chicago. In 2013, he received the Jonas Greenfield Prize for Younger Semitists from the American Oriental Society. He is the editor, with Josh Ellenbogen, of Idol Anxiety (Stanford 2011) and the author of Baal and the Politics of Poetry (Routledge 2018). His work moves between his PhD in Assyriology to his background in political theory and religious studies.

Tugendhaft’s book The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet explores the political power of images and the significance of their destruction. In short, the book is smart, sharp, astute, and sophisticated. It is really just a 100-page essay leaving the reader wanting more or to spend the rest of the evening debating the application of the ideas in the book. The author had a very sharp insight and then rather than spend several years developing a full book, he wrote a three-chapter essay with insight for readers in religion, art, politics, Islam, history, and media studies. Idols of Isis is a deeply humanistic work asking the basic questions about the human condition.

The start of the book was the author watching ISIS destroy the Assyrian statues in the National Archeology Museum. They claimed the statues were idolatry while other saw them as universal cultural heritage or a Iraqi cultural heritage. 

Isis destroying Assyrian statues

This contemporary image brought to his mind the similar image from the reign of Sargon II of the destruction by three men of the rival kingdom’s images. This led to considerations of the political role of idols and the need to publicize their destruction. It also brought to mind that museums are not neutral spaces but political statements. Assuming that the public form is never without images, the question is why video their destruction? and why attack images in a Museum?

Destruction of statues in reign of Sargon II

The book has three chapters: Idols, Museums and Video

Idols, the first chapter, situates images, idols, and stories in the medieval thought of Al Farabi who understood that society must have images and stories so that the laws would be followed. Hence, the successful prophet knew how to use his imagination to create appropriate stories. (Maimonides follows Farabi’s thought and affirms the same ideas about prophecy and Moses’ leadership.) As much as Farabi (and Maimonides) want to escape representation, it is nevertheless essential to create the virtuous society. What is note worthy here is the use of Farabi rather than a modern theorist to explain idols. The chapter also discusses the thought of Sayyid Qutb, the ideology for the extreme Islamist groups who declared the USA and the Western world as idolatrous similar to the idols of the pre-Islamic ignorance, thereby conflating the past with the contemporary. There is a tension between Farabi’s concessions to the human need for images and those who aim to achieve purity for their visions of society.

Museums, the second chapter discusses how they are representative of who we want to be. Are the statues idols or cultural heritage?  However, all heritage is political. Are ancient pieces of art part of universal cultural heritage or national heritage. ISIS framed the destruction of the statues as idols but the real idol being destroyed was the Western universal heritage of art. Westerners saw the museum as cultural heritage. It includes discussion of the debate in Iraq of seeing themselves as Arabic or as a continuation of the Assyrians. Similar debates go on in many countries. Are Confederate statues heritage or idols of a past age needing to be removed?  (Are excavations of Canaanite sites part of Israeli heritage or against it? The state of Israel decided that they were heritage.)  

Mural showing Saddam Hussain’s embrace of the ancient Assyrian heritage

Video, the third chapter discusses how ISIS posting a video of the destruction is a replacement of the secular heritage by this new image that of an ISIS video. The ISIS video was meant to evoke rage and sharpen sides.  

The chapter also compared these images to video games. It creatively returns to Farabi by comparing his concept of how the image creates the common life of the polis with how modern social media technology creates individual experiences. Still following Farabi’s thought, the book states that political images should be investigated in how they arose, what did they choose, and what did they leave out. What does it say about our needs?

Idols of Isis is an engaging piece of cultural criticism, a passionate meditation on the tension between those seeking ideological purity in society and those seeking what he calls pluralistic grey zones of public discourse. If all this was not interesting enough,  the book has an undercurrent about Tugendhaft’s own family background as a Jewish Iraqi family who fled the June 1941 outbreak of mob violence against Baghdad Jewry known as the Farhud (Farhud is an Arabic term best translated as “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”) showing how Iraq went from a cosmopolitan country to one under ISIS concerned with purity.

  1. What is the drive to destroy idols?

The Hebrew prophets refer to idols as the work of human hands. Underlying the drive to destroy idols is an anxiety about that which we as human beings have brought into being. Specifically, anxiety about their authority.

Idolatry, that is, submission to idols, treats things that arose through our own power as if they had power over us. The desire to destroy idols is linked to a desire to escape responsibility for the authority that guides the way we live. True authority, according to this way of thinking, must come from somewhere beyond the human. It must be unsullied by all the imperfections that we rightly recognize as attending what humans have made. So, the drive to destroy idols is connected to the dream of living in a world without those imperfections always complicating the decisions we make and the actions we take. It’s, therefore, intimately linked to a desire to escape politics—by which I mean, that all too human method of taking collective responsibility for how we choose to live together. Like idols, politics is the work of human hands.

2. Why make a video of the destruction of idols?

Because you want your new image to rest authority from the destroyed image. There’s actually a long tradition of making images of image destruction.

Note that the new image is no less a work of human hands than the one shown being destroyed. And like the image being destroyed, the new one also makes claims about what we should value and how we should live. In this sense, the new image is no less an “idol” than the old ones shown being destroyed.

It might be helpful here to think of an idol not as a particular kind of image distinct from others, but as a way of experiencing an image. When the humanly made character of an image becomes problematic for us, when we experience anxiety over the authority that image exerts, then it has become an idol for us. The term “idol” can also be used as a reproach against others; by labeling certain images as idols, one group can try to generate anxiety in another group about the authority of the images that that second group had accepted unproblematically until then.

In the case of the Islamic State video from the Mosul Museum, one could plausibly argue that those being accused of idolatry weren’t really the ancient Assyrians but rather those of us today who instill a certain authority in images by putting them in museums and giving them the status of heritage. We might rightly be anxious about the ways such images assert power over us. The video of their destruction might get us to experience them as problematic in a way that we hadn’t before. Simply removing the images without recording that removal for people to see wouldn’t have the same effect; it’s the image of their destruction that challenges their authority. The new image is necessary for this change of perception to take place.

That said, an image of image destruction might not change people’s minds so much as further entrench them in their prejudices and presuppositions. We might double down on the images we adore when we experience them as under attack. That was certainly the case with the ISIS video. Heritage organizations around the world immediately condemned the Islamic State for not abiding by the cosmopolitan norms that images placed in museums are meant to cultivate in us.

It is important to stress that the new image is just as able as the old one to succumb to the anxiety that it is an idol.  Images depicting the destruction of idols may give the impression that false images are being eradicated, while in fact they are being replaced by new images that are equally false.

3. How is the story of Abraham/Ibrahim smashing the idols a political story?

The Quran recounts a story about how Ibrahim as a youth smashed the idols that were worshiped in his hometown. A similar story can be found in the Jewish Midrash (though not in the Torah).

The Mosul Museum video quotes a line from the Quranic story, implying that ISIS is continuing the work that Ibrahim began. Like many Jews who received a religious upbringing, I’ve been familiar with the story since childhood. But it was only after I saw it referenced in the ISIS video that I began to give it some thought. The more I thought about it, the more complex the story became.

In both Arabic and Hebrew, the core meaning of the verb usually translated as “worship” when associated with the divine is simply “serve.” The conventional translation risks losing the word’s political connotations. When Ibrahim/Abraham objects to his neighbors’ serving images rather than God, he is raising a question about where political authority should lie—whether with human beings and their manmade images or with a transcendent God who created the world and all mankind. Medieval elaborations of the Quranic story make the political implications explicit by associating the offensive images with the legendary king Nimrud. In the medieval imagination, Nimrud’s kingdom stood for the great Mesopotamian civilizations of the pre-Islamic past. By challenging the authority of Nimrud’s images—that is, the images by which Nimrud established his authority—Ibrahim is making a political statement, not just a theological one. He is calling for regime change.

It’s worth noting that the story in the Quran uses the words commonly translated as “image” and “idol” interchangeably. That is, to Ibrahim’s way of thinking there is no difference between them. All images are false and so subordinating oneself to any image constitutes idolatry. The young reformer doesn’t seem to want to replace Nimrud’s images with better images or truer images (whatever this might mean); he claims that the only legitimate regime is a regime without images. The people must serve God directly, without any mediation. I think the townsfolk are rightly skeptical of Ibrahim’s radical idea. There’s a certain conservative wisdom in their reply that they were simply serving the images as their ancestors had done.

4. How does Farabi understand the relationship among images, politics, and prophecy? How do images provide us with a “second nature”?

In order to get a tighter grip on what’s at stake in the idea of a “regime without images,” I turned to the political writings of the 10th century Baghdadi philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. (In a letter to his Hebrew translator Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides once compared all of Farabi’s works to “fine flour.”) Developing insights that are already present in Plato, Farabi argued that political life is impossible without images and that human happiness is impossible without political life. So, if we want to be happy, we need to keep images around.

All political communities, Farabi argues, need laws that regulate the behaviors and desires of individuals so that they can live together successfully. These laws impinge upon our individual freedom and natural inclinations. (If we naturally wanted to do what the law wants us to do, there would be no need for the law.) And so, it is necessary to make the law seem desirable so that people will want to obey it. Images, for Farabi, are what make this possible. They give people a common orientation and a set of shared ideals that allow individuals to think of themselves as part of a greater community. When most successful, these images produce a kind of “second nature” thanks to which we no longer experience the law as an impingement upon our freedom.

The prophet is the figure, according to Farabi, who can successfully generate images for a political community. Farabi’s prophet combines extraordinary intellect with a vivid imaginative faculty. Thanks to this imaginative faculty (we might call such a person “creative”) the prophet is able to provide the people with images that move them, images that inspire their longings in specific ways and give them a collective sense of belonging. Today, we might look to Hollywood as a major producer of such moving images.

Prophetic images in Farabi’s sense need not be limited to visual images. They might include anything that plays on our imagination to create commitment to the law. The category certainly includes stories. In fact, I’d suggest that the story of Ibrahim/Abraham smashing the idols is a prophetic image that has allowed people to imagine themselves as part of a community that shuns images. It’s proven to be a particularly moving image. After all, it has provided countless people with a sense of identity and common purpose for well over a thousand years.

5. Are all images equal?

All images are incomplete. That doesn’t make them all equal. Some are better than others.

Farabi’s prophet isn’t just creative, he’s also really smart. He knows what images are best for his people and offers them those. They are “best” in two senses. First, they lead us towards happiness. We can easily be moved by images that incite factionalism, for instance, but these are unlikely to produce the flourishing political life on which our happiness depends. Second, Farabi understands that images that might work well for one group of people may not be suitable for another, depending on geographical location, past history, and other factors that render groups different from one another. So images also need to be judged based on their appropriateness to a particular group and its needs at a particular time.

Farabi envisions a hierarchical situation where an idealized prophet provides images for a receptive community. Can Farabi’s idea of prophetic images fit with modern commitments to democracy and popular sovereignty? There is good reason to be cautious here, as we risk turning a blind eye to some of Farabi’s deepest political insights. Nonetheless, it’s important to think about how Farabi’s insight that politics needs images might apply when we don’t have access to an all-knowing prophet to tell us which images we should adopt.

6. What is the role of judgement?

As I’ve said, all images are incomplete. Therefore, it’s never a matter of adopting the perfect image. There simply are no perfect images. By emphasizing one thing, something else is necessarily left out. There is always a particular perspective involved. A fully inclusive image, were it to exist, would be like the imperial map that Jorge Luis Borges describes in his one-paragraph story On Exactitude in Science, “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Such an image would be utterly useless. So we have to choose between imperfect options. It’s here that I’ve found Hannah Arendt’s writings about political judgment to be useful.

In a democracy, it is up to us to decide which images we want to live with. We get to judge which images are better for us than others. At least to a certain extent, because we never get to judge free of the influence of images. Any commitment we might have to a democratic way of life, for instance, itself belongs to a “second nature” that we’ve acquired from the images working on us from childhood. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I take issue with early American president John Quincy Adams’ statement (which I chose as one of two epigraphs to my book) that “democracy has no monuments” and that “it’s very essence is iconoclastic.” This is deceptive. Commitment to democratic ways of doing things doesn’t arise naturally; it must be cultivated in our souls through images, not merely rational argument. Any political community whose “essence” was iconoclastic couldn’t survive. So, again, it’s never really a question of living without false images, but of choosing which ones seem best for us given a particular circumstance.

Politics is that process of negotiating the relative merits of these different alternatives. It takes place in a space where people argue over better and worse options, each necessarily imperfect. Such a space for politics doesn’t arise naturally and it doesn’t sustain itself without constant care and cultivation. A deep impulse in us may desire to circumvent the hard work and imperfect results of political negotiation and compromise. We might yearn for more solid certainty that our way of doing things is the right way.

Around the time that ISIS released the Mosul Museum video, its online magazine Dabiq featured an article titled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” It described the group’s intention of dividing the world into two, clearly demarcated groups: the camp of faith and the camp of apostasy. They wanted to eradicate any middle ground where people could have legitimate doubts and disagreements about what’s right and what’s wrong. In other words, they wanted to do away with the messy realm of politics.

This desire to live “beyond the political” is by no means unique to ISIS or so-called radical Islam. If we consider just the past hundred years, there have been numerous attempts to identify an absolute standard that would make politics superfluous. National Socialists deferred to Race, Marxists to History, and libertarians to the Market. Some today hold out similar hopes for the Algorithm.

It’s worth adding that not everyone would accept this vision of politics that I borrow from Arendt. Some might insist, rather, that politics is about forming powerful factions—each seeking to force an issue in its own favor. It’s not about coexisting but about beating the other guy. Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as that which distinguishes friend from enemy comes to mind. What makes someone an enemy? Must friends agree? How much disagreement can exist before a group of friends breaks apart into enemies? At a time when factionalism in politics seems to be on the rise, often together with purity tests to determine loyalty, these are serious questions that deserve serious consideration. I hope that my work can at least help people see the stakes involved.

7. Was the smashing of the statues by ISIS a removal of idols or of art? What’s significant about the video having been filmed in a museum?

As I’ve already mentioned, an idol is not so much a particular kind of object but rather an object experienced in a particular way. An ISIS spokesman in the video states that the objects that they destroyed were idols. Interestingly, the flurry of international condemnations of the video rarely talked of art. Rather, the word of choice was “heritage.”  

Concern over the preservation of cultural heritage can be traced back to the French Revolution. Responding to the iconoclastic fury that was overtaking France, the clergyman and revolutionary leader Abbé Grégoire gave a series of speeches in the National Convention advocating for the protection of what he considered France’s patrimony—a patrimony that belonged to the people even if the objects that constituted that patrimony were made at a time when the people didn’t hold power. The cleric turned the biblical parodies of idolaters on their head, declaring that it was now the iconoclast who displayed their ignorance by treating a sculpture as a dumb piece of stone rather than a piece of “marble that breathes.” Grégoire famously coined the term “vandalism,” whereby he linked the destruction of cultural heritage to the Vandals—one of the so-called barbarian tribes that brought down the Roman Empire. He was also instrumental in having churches throughout France converted into museums to house the objects that were now considered heritage.

It’s worth thinking about not only what’s at stake in calling the destroyed objects heritage rather than idols, but also why heritage rather than art. When ancient Near Eastern sculpture was first displayed in the British Museum in the 19th century, Sir Richard Westmacott, a professor of sculpture and museum trustee was asked what he thought; he replied, “It is very bad art.” Perhaps some of that initial opinion remains.

More likely, the inclination to refer to the objects as heritage rather than art reflects a reigning democratic impulse that considers art too elevated a term. If so, then the assumption would be that art is too elitist to expect everyone to care about, but people who don’t care about their heritage can rightly be declared barbaric. The civilization vs. barbarism binary returned with a vengeance in the wake of the Islamic State’s videos. If the goal of the videos was to polarize the world into two camps, they were working.

8. Can you talk about your own connection to Iraq and the Farhud? Do you still feel a connection?

My grandfather was born in Baghdad in 1910, eleven years before the establishment of the modern state of Iraq. He belonged to a Jewish community that had called the banks of the Tigris home since antiquity. I never got to know him, though, because he died when I was very young. This project was in part a way for me to learn more about my own heritage.

Thanks to the work of scholars like Orit Bashkin and memoires like Sasson Somekh’s haunting Baghdad, Yesterday, I was able to gain some access to the world in which my grandfather came of age. Baghdad in the early 20th century was known for its bookstalls and literary cafés. It was a city animated with intellectual fervor focused on founding a new nation. Iraqi Jews participated alongside Iraqis of other religions—or of no religion, as there were quite a few Marxists in the mix.

But things weren’t entirely rosy. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew in the 1930s, culminating in the Farhud of 1941—a pro-Axis pogrom that left nearly two hundred Jews dead and precipitated my family’s departure from Iraq. My grandfather first moved to Tehran (where my mother was born), then to Tel Aviv, and finally New York (where I was born). He was living in Washington, DC, and working for the United Jewish Appeal when he died in 1982.

Though I never got to talk with my grandfather, I did get to read his books. When my parents cleared out his apartment after he dies, they moved his library into our house. It mainly consisted of books about Middle Eastern history and politics. Years later, as a teenager, I became interested in reading about history—these were the books I began with.

So, yes, I do feel a connection to Iraq. That said, I often also feel like I’m not supposed to identify as Iraqi because I’m Jewish and a (critical) supporter of the State of Israel. I’d like to be able to claim all of these things, with the attendant tensions. Identity politics often seems to impose neatly defined categories that don’t correspond to an individual’s complex lived reality—another way of eradicating the grayzone. My identity is messy. And yet, at the same time, I also want to recognize that neither I nor my family have suffered personally from the war and destruction that has been brought on Iraq in recent years, which circumscribes how much I’d feel comfortable speaking “as an Iraqi” today.

9. How does this research grow from your book on the political role of the poetry about Baal?

Both books deal with the relationship between politics and products of human creativity. The Idols of ISIS focuses on visual images, whereas Baal and the Politics of Poetry is about a mythological poem. In my earlier book, I tried to think about how a poem might help its audience think critically about the political world around them. I did so by considering the thirteenth-century BC Ugaritic poem of Baal alongside the many political and diplomatic texts that have been recovered from the same period. I tried to show that someone who was familiar with the political norms of the day would have found the depiction of the gods to be quite strange—in many they echo the actions of earthly kings, but in ways that reveal things about the workings of politics that are normally kept hidden here on earth. The poem, I argued, helped its audience break through their political “second nature” (I didn’t use such Farabian terminology, but it fits) in order to be able to reflect on the norms that governed their world. So if The Idols of ISIS is concerned with images that generate political norms that hold a community together, the Baal book focused instead on how a poem can serve to provoke reflection on those norms. One might think of this as the difference between prophetic images and Socratic images—i.e., ones meant to operate like a gadfly that stings us out of our stupor and gets us to think. I do treat Socrates briefly in the coda to the ISIS book.

10. How do your interests in art history, political philosophy, and Assyriology come together in this project?

The project started when I recognized a parallel between one moment in the Mosul Museum video and a section of an ancient relief sculpture from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad. Both show three men with sledgehammers smashing the sculpture of a king. The resemblance is truly uncanny.

I was familiar with the Assyrian image because I had chosen it for the cover of my book Idol Anxiety, an anthology of essays that I edited with the art historian Josh Ellenbogen. (Incidentally, the introduction that we wrote for that volume provides a fuller account of the notion of anxiety that I discussed earlier.) Beyond this resemblance between two images, the video brought together themes that I had been thinking about for year: idolatry, the ancient Near East and its modern reception, the politics of images. I had gotten my BA in art history, but then spent time studying phenomenology at the Sorbonne and religious studies at Hebrew University before beginning a doctoral program in the Committee on Social Thought, where I mainly focused on political theory, and eventually completing a PhD in ancient Near Eastern studies at NYU. Suddenly, all those years spent studying various disciplines started to make sense. I felt like the video was calling out to me to write something. So I did.

11. How and why did Saddam Hussein draw connections to ancient Mesopotamian antiquities?

Back in the 1920s, Gertrude Bell and Sati al-Husri disagreed about the role Mesopotamian antiquities should play in constituting the identity of the nascent Iraqi state. Bell believed that Iraq’s ancient past should be harnessed to generate a sense of national identity; as the country’s first director of antiquities, she built the National Museum in Baghdad to showcase these national treasures.

By contrast, al-Husri, a childhood friend of King Faysal who became the country’s first director general of education, thought Bell’s plans worked against his own pan-Arabism. By emphasizing a past that was unique to Iraqis, he thought, Bell’s museum undermined their Arab identity and their connections to Arabs beyond Iraq’s recently-demarcated borders. He refused to include trips to Bell’s museum in the Iraqi school curriculum. And when al-Husri took over as director of antiquities after Bell’s death, he redirected funds and energy towards establishing the Museum of Arab Antiquities.

Future leaders of Iraq, however, like Abdul Karim Kassem and Saddam Hussein, tended to favor Bell’s perspective—they made extensive use of Iraq’s pre-Islamic past in their attempts to construct a modern identity. While many who have prioritized Islam have taken issue with both Bell’s antiquities and al-Husri’s Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein was particularly active in producing images that linked him to Iraq’s ancient past. When he wanted to be seen as leader of the Palestinian cause, he took on the guise of Nebuchadnezzar—the Babylonian king who sacked Jerusalem. During the Iran-Iraq War, he associated himself with ancient kings who withstood the Elamites. One image shows Saddam receiving Iraq’s heritage (in the form of a palm sapling) from an ancient Assyrian deity. Details emphasize the continuity of Iraq’s culture, from cuneiform antiquity through medieval Islam to today.

When I began this project, I was living in Chicago, which hosts a large Iraqi expat community. I asked the owner of a grocery shop where I regularly went to stock up on date syrup and foul what he thought about the destruction of antiquities that ISIS was then regularly perpetuating. He wasn’t particularly bothered by it, he said. As one of the many school children bused to Babylon and other ancient sights during the Saddam era, he considered all that stuff to be the propaganda of a tyrannical regime.

I mention all this because I think it is helpful to keep in mind how complex and contested our relationship to the past can be. And these are only the broad strokes; far more tensions can be found as one looks more closely at the details. I doubt that there is a right answer to which past someone should connect with and which past they should shun. There are always going to be tradeoffs. I do think it’s possible to become self-aware, at least to a certain extent, about why one might embrace one option rather than another. But it is foolish to expect people to live without such ways of rooting themselves.

As a teacher, I believe that it’s my job to help students see beyond the confines of the prophetic images with which they were raised, as well as those that they may have adopted more recently. Unsettling self-certainty is probably a good thing and I certainly try to provoke it in my students. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Even within the relatively narrow demographic represented in my classroom, I regularly experience a wide range of reactions to my prodding—from students who thrive on having their self-certainty challenged to those who instinctively dig-in or aren’t even able to register that what they take for granted is being called into question. This makes me skeptical of a cosmopolitanism that requires all people to overcome their particular prophetic images. I think it is the job of liberal education to help each student reflect on their commitments and assumptions. That alone can be powerful. But it shouldn’t be confused with ushering us into a promised land without prejudice, without the rootedness that comes from partiality. That’s just another utopian fantasy of a world beyond politics.

12. There is a Haredi Neo-Chassidic rabbi in Israel who preaches that if not for the government, we should destroy the remnants of the Canaanite and Phoenician idolatry found in heritage sites and in museums? What do you make of that?

I think he should read my book. He might actually find it surprising. I’d be happy to send him a copy.